Driver Knowledge Tests

What’s the best car for a new driver?

Most people are going to learn to drive in the family car and that could be anything from an old sedan through to a modern hot hatch. Later model cars are adorned with all kinds of driver aids like traction control, electronic stability programs, brake assist and anti-lock brakes. Some new cars even parallel park themselves, have reversing cameras, monitor blind spots or will warn if you are wandering from your lane.

Learning in this environment can give a driver a false sense of security when it’s time to buy an actual car as it’s unlikely to be a vehicle that’s expensive. It’s more likely to be an older model that is not as safe, doesn’t handle as well and is less forgiving in challenging conditions. As it’s likely to be a car that is under $10,000 it’s likely it won’t have a reversing camera, parking sensors or any of the other features that assist manoeuvring.

This can be used to advantage, though. With some forethought you can get a car for a learner driver that they will then use once they have passed. They will be familiar with the vehicle and be used to driving within its limits – something that learner drivers are bound to explore (and exceed). Learning the core skills of driving early on will stand them in good stead later as technology attempts to dumb those skills down.

Whether you are the one learning to drive, or you are a parent looking for a vehicle for your son or daughter, this article will look at the questions you need to ask when purchasing a car for a new driver in Australia.

Type of gearbox: ultimate flexibility, or easier instant gratification?

We’re talking about whether your gearbox is automatic or manual. If you take your driving test in an automatic vehicle you will be restricted to driving an automatic or clutchless manual transmission vehicle while on your P1 licence.

The popularity of manual cars is waning. The majority of cars sold in Australia are either automatic, CVT or clutchless manual. Having a straight manual gearbox is only usually seen in sports-style cars (such as HSV models), or very cheap cars (because manual gearboxes are cheaper than automatic gearboxes to produce).

However, if you look at older vehicles then there will be a greater number of manual cars available on the market. While manual might still be popular in Europe, here (and in New Zealand and Japan), automatics rule. They are no longer the inefficient cousins of manuals.

Where do you live?

If you are in the city you will have a totally different set of requirements to living in the outback. Around the city you may be restricted on parking and you ideally want a smaller, economical vehicle that will be cheap to insure and easy to manoeuvre.

If you live in the country or the outback, or you like getting away from it all, you might want to look at a more rugged four-wheel drive option.

Are you a patriot?

On the off-chance you are buying a new car, do you want to go with a Holden or Australian-built Ford to keep jobs here? If so, your options are dramatically reduced because the smallest Holden, the Barina Spark (which is around $13,000 new), is built in Korea (it’s a rebadged Daewoo Matiz). The smallest Ford, the Fiesta, is made in Thailand.

To get an Australian-built Holden, the cheapest one is the Cruze.

You are probably going to be purchasing a secondhand car, though, in which case almost all parts for any car you buy will come from overseas.

What’s your budget?

Sometimes it’s hard to put a price on safety. You could buy an older car but you know it’ll fold up poorly if hit by another vehicle.

There’s also the issue of fuel economy. Newer cars can be 3l/100km more frugal than a car that’s perhaps 10-15 years old. If you do 15,000km in a year you’ll use 450 litres less fuel in the year. The price as I’m writing this is around $1.50/litre, so that means you’d be spending $650-700 more per year on an older car. Assuming you’ll keep your car for four years that could be over $2500 more in fuel. And then there’s the additional maintenance an older car will take over that time – perhaps another $1000-2000.

In any case, don’t over-extend yourself because you will end up risking having the car repossessed.

Let’s cut to the chase

The city car

If you’re looking for a well-specified city car on a budget we recommend one of two options: a Kia Picanto if you like them really small, or the evergreen Suzuki Swift if you want marginally more space. Both cars handle very well, they’re cheap to insure, cheap to run (the Kia more so than the Suzuki), and fairly reliable. Swifts should hold their resale value, too, as they are popular. Here’s a review on YouTube of the Picanto (we didn’t do this review, and I couldn’t find an Australian one on YouTube, but it’s based on the 2011 in the UK and that’s similar to what we get)

The country car

A Suzuki Jimny Sierra is one of the best cars a learner driver can choose. It is raw and agricultural, so you can feel everything that’s going on in the road. If you do happen to leave the road because you’ve exceeded its abilities, it’s a rugged little four-wheel drive that will probably just be able to drive back out again. In fact, it has better off-road skills than many of the heavier, more complex SUVs that are out there because it is very light and has high ground clearance.

Because it’s light it’s also reasonably good on the fuel economy. The Jimny is narrow and short which makes it easy to park. As you are slightly taller than cars, you get good traffic visibility.

The only downsides to the Jimny are no cargo blind therefore anything you leave in the boot is on show to potential thieves, and it does lack some of the driver electronics that other models have like electronic stability program. You won’t need traction control because the engine produces around 85bhp and that’s not enough to overwhelm the tyres.

Here’s a video of the Jimny in the Glasshouse Mountains. I haven’t driven a Jimny off-road, but I have driven its larger brother the Vitara through some fairly steep and foreboding territory.

The great thing about both the Jimny and the Picanto is that you feel like you are going fast even when you are not going fast. Their relatively sluggish performance means that it’s less likely you’ll be speeding. Their limits can be explored with mild understeer and the limits arrive at fairly low speeds and very progressively. These are not cars that will bite unsuspecting novice drivers.

Let us know what car you learned to drive in in the comments below, and if you’ve got any opinions about what cars people should learn to drive in.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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  1. […] Driving instructors will usually have a vehicle with dual controls so that they can take control in an emergency. You will need to find out whether they have manual or automatic vehicles, depending on which one you want to sit your test in. See our article on choosing a car for a new driver. […]