• Look for key safety features. Antilock brakes, stability control, traction control and all-wheel drive help prevent crashes. Air bags—the more the better—offer protection, though you might have to look hard to find the technology in used cars.
• Kick the tires. Before buying a used car, check the following:
1. Head restraints—do they adjust properly? Properly adjusted head restraints help protect against whiplash in a rear-end crash.
2. Safety belts—are there belts for the driver and all passengers? Are they frayed or worn?
3. Dashboard—when you start the car, do any of the warning signals remain on? If so, something's wrong.
4. Tires—is the tread worn out? Do you see cracks or bulges? Most experts agree that tires older than five years need to be carefully inspected to look for signs the rubber is degrading. This can be a serious problem on cars that aren't driven often—the tread may look all right, but the tire may have deteriorated.
• Do your homework. Read reports together with your teen, such as the Consumer Reports reliability survey. The 2009 Auto Survey showed that inexpensive small cars and midsize family sedans are the most reliable and generally advised against buying cars that have a high rollover risk for inexperienced drivers, such as large trucks or full-size SUVs.