Right Driver

Choosing the best car for a learner driver

What is the best car to learn to drive in? Car technology and safety improves every year, but the consequences of this are that young drivers can find it difficult to understand where the limits are. New drivers often feel bulletproof, but throw in anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic brake force distribution and vehicle stability systems, and they can be lulled into a false sense of security.

So the argument is whether you should get a car which has a more visceral feel but is less forgiving, or if you buy a car with a large number of bells and whistles that dumbs the driving experience down.

Certainly to obtain a full licence a driver needs to be able to manoeuvre, parallel park and so on. Many new cars will do this with the push of a button and the technology that drives this is filtering down to cheaper and cheaper vehicles. They also have blind spot warning systems, radar-based cruise control, speed limiters and more, all of which reduce the reliance on the driver to focus on what’s actually happening. A late model Honda Accord of Ford Kuga will even drive itself on relatively straight roads using radar cruise control to maintain a sensible distance from the car in front, and lane monitoring to automatically correct the vehicle’s position in the lane.

Given that driving may actually trend more towards a game-playing experience, what should you do to make sure that you (if you are the one reading this and learning to drive), or your son or daughter (if you are the one providing a car for a teenager who is learning to drive) learns a set of skills that is comprehensive and useful?

Automatic or manual

Let’s start with the most important question: automatic or manual? Manual cars are still popular in the UK, but the numbers are diminishing. Volkswagen’s dual-clutch automatic, the rise of CVT, and general technology advances in the humble automatic mean that they are not the inefficient cousins of manual gears that they were back in the 1980s and earlier. In fact, if you go to a country such as Australia, New Zealand or Japan, the vast majority of cars are automatic.

The nuggety Suzuki Jimny

If manual is important, Right Driver recommends you consider something like a Suzuki Jimny  (click here to read a review or click here to view detailed specifications). This nuggety little 4×4 is insurance group 14, and you could pick one up with moderate mileage for less than a thousand pounds. The Jimny is raw, but it is also practical. As a new driver, there’s a high likelihood that the car will be involved in a minor off-road excursion at some point. The Jimny has the capabilities of driving through any rough stuff and back on the road. In fact, it is a more competent off-road vehicle than many large SUVs which are just too heavy.

The 1.3-litre engine kicks out a measly 85ps which gives it a 0-60mph time of around 14 seconds. But, the thing with the Jimny, is that you feel like you are going fast when you are not. The Jimny provides a driving experience that is almost perfect for a learner: you can feel the road, you can feel the limits, and if you do exceed the limits, it’s a tough vehicle that will take a pounding.

Being both narrow and fairly short, it’s an easy vehicle to park. It has excellent visibility all around the vehicle, being slightly higher than most cars, and it’s also light (the kerb weight is just over a tonne), so fuel economy is reasonable at 40mpg combined (urban and extra-urban driving).

It does have a few issues, though: crash testing is not its strong point. Even the latest model Jimnys are not awash with airbags (they only get 2), let alone older ones. There’s also no cargo blind, so you can’t leave anything in the boot because it’ll get pinched.  Later models get ABS, but no electronic stability program.

The Korean King: Kia Picanto

If the Jimny is altogether too agricultural and you want something new but sensibly priced that comes with slightly more comfort, you can take a look at the Kia Picanto (insurance group 3)

The 1-litre Picanto (click here to read a review or click here to view detailed specifications) in manual will see you 60+ miles per gallon (mpg) and as it only produces 99g/km of CO2, it qualifies for minimal road tax charges (A in the VED band). Newer Picantos get a much better designed interior and 30% more boot space (up to 200 litres) due to a longer wheelbase. Expect to pay £5000-9000 for a modern (2011 onwards) model, or between £1500-3000 if you go back to 2005. If you go for a later model version of the Picanto you will also see the balance of a 7-year, 100,000 mile new car warranty.

Other options

While the Picanto and Jimny are our recommendations for actual driver involvement, they might not suit your requirements or budget (particularly the Jimny which may be harder to insure). Fortunately there are a large number of other options you can consider:

Micro: Toyota Aygo / Peugeot 107 / Citroen C1 (they’re all the same car with different clothes, and have group 1 or 2 insurance); Ford Ka (insurance group 2)

Small: Ford Fiesta, Mitsubishi Colt, Mitsubishi Mirage

Small/mid: Kia Rio, Vauxhall Corsa

Mitsubishi Mirage

The Mirage is a newer vehicle which resurrects the old Mirage badge. It’s also extremely frugal and as such qualifies for zero road tax. The warranty isn’t as long as the Picanto’s, at only 3 years, but is for unlimited miles. The 1.2-litre motor emits as little as 95g/km of carbon dioxide and has similar fuel economy to the Picanto. The Mirage has automatic start-stop technology, plus dashboard eco-indicators to let the driver know when they’re driving efficiently. Here’s a video review of one, or you can continue reading this article below.


Calculating your budget

Given the price of fuel, it might not be economical to look for an old clunker. And then you have to consider how much the extra safety is worth. Most new cars come with a 5-star EuroNCAP rating (or, at worst, a 4-star rating), and even a 4-star rating today will be much safer than most cars of 10 years ago.

If budget is a big concern make a spreadsheet to calculate your total cost of ownership of a car. Bear in mind that manufacturer-quoted economy figures are optimistic in everyday driving, and it depends on how hilly your locale is, how many people you carry, and whether your particular driving style is frugal or not, but if we go by them, if you buy a Jimny you will get, say, 40mpg, vs 60mpg in a Picanto. That equates to 50% more fuel costs in a year. If you would expect to spend £1000 per year on petrol with a Picanto then the same driving distance could cost you £1500 with a Jimny. If fuel is £6.30 per gallon, your £1000 will buy you £1000/£6.30 = 158.7 gallons. At 60 miles per gallon, 158.7 x 60 = approximately 9500 miles.

Over 3 years this will mean £1500 extra in fuel costs for the Jimny. So, figure out what the lifetime budget of your car is likely to be and see whether it really does stack up to buy a cheaper, older car over time.

Of course, if you live in a rural area, or an area that sees a lot of snow, something like the Jimny will excel because you have got a four-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance, but not enough power to get you into trouble. It will happily deal to rough country lanes, as well as dispatching kerbs with ease when you’re in town.

If you live in the city and do a lot of rush hour commuting, the Jimny might not suit you as much as a small town car like the Picanto which will be more comfortable.

Let us know what cars you think are the best to learn in. Leave your comments below.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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