The first thing I ask of the students is to tell me what their parents are doing wrong behind the wheel, without fear of reprisals. That’s usually good for an hour or so, with hour two dedicated to their first car.

I decided to put my chicken scratch notes together on that subject, realizing that the first car need is very different today for many Canadians. It’s not just 16-year-old students; it’s those people of any age who are new to driving, and possibly also new to this great country of ours. There’s a smart way to do this, and a few sure-fire ways to get burned. Let’s get started.

The prospect of purchasing your first vehicle is an exciting one, and the last thing I want to do is burst your bubble. Before you start soiling your sneakers with tire kicks on Dealership Row, start with a piece of paper. (Or an app, if that’s more handy.) We’re not trying to figure out the car yet; we’re trying to figure out if your life even warrants a vehicle.

In many respects, it’s all about location. If you’re living in a dense urban area, with minimal commuting distance, and minimal parking opportunities, ask yourself how often you would drive it. Cars need exercise, meaning that they don’t like to sit for extended periods.


Investigate car sharing programs, and the types of vehicles in the fleet. A smart fortwo, a favourite of such programs, isn’t the best solution for going armoire hunting, assuming you’re an armoire hunter.

Jot\tap out how you would use your yet-to-be-named vehicle. What things would you be doing with your vehicle that you can’t do now, using public or for-hire types of transportation? And yes, being simply fed up with buses and taxi service is an acceptable answer. 

There are few opportunities in this life that will get more people’s attention than getting a used car for free. It appears to be a popular occurrence for many teenage drivers, usually with a secondary family vehicle, or the gifting of a vehicle from a relative. How could you possibly say no?

Let’s start with what it is, and the overall condition. If the car has panels you can put your foot through, the car is simply no longer able to perform properly in a crash, and should be avoided.

Cars that have been sitting for a long time, like Grandma’s ’83 Cutlass Ciera, can be costly to refresh, due to a few factors: few mechanics remember how to fix them, and parts have become more specialty item than mainstream. ‎That Cutlass is more hobby car than daily driver, especially when you start shopping for non-existent tire sizes.

A free car is never free, so ensure that you have available funds for needed repairs and maintenance. 


Parents of independent means may be in a position to purchase/finance a new vehicle for their new driver(s). Their first stop should be the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS is the home of the Top Safety Pick protocol for crash performance, and is an excellent resource for learning about new crash avoidance technologies, such as forward collision mitigation systems. Pay close attention to crash tests regarding cars in the city car class. As cute as they are, they all have one thing in common; larger vehicles will inflict a world of hurt. 

Let’s say you’re the one with the independent means to buy a vehicle, be it $3,000 in Loonies, or $300 per month. ‎In my sessions with students, I will always ask what their budget is. The next question I ask them addresses their budget for maintenance, which is usually a flat zero.

Whether it’s $3,000 or $13,000, a used car is going to need something, usually a lot sooner with the lesser purchase amounts. A decent set of tires will run between $600 to $1,000, depending on the vehicle. Don’t forgot about winter tires, so you might as well double that amount.

Oil changes, coolant flushes, and accessory belts all add up. About the only thing that $29.95 will buy you these days, as far as car maintenance goes, is a proper bath. ‎

I advise a service cushion budget of $3,000, for a used vehicle purchase that includes no warranty coverage.

The best way to ensure that the vehicle you are considering is worth the money, no matter what the amount, is to pay for an inspection by an independent mechanic. 


The payments on new vehicles, especially the least expensive, have grown so enticing that one has to wonder if any used car is worth the trouble. This is the thought process behind the new Nissan Micra, with an MSRP under $10,000. Zero percent financing, and bi-weekly payments that wouldn’t buy a proper Swiss Chalet chicken gorge for two are hard to ignore.

Have you noticed how long you’ll be paying for the vehicle? Most bi-weekly purchase schemes are 84-month terms. That’s also known as seven years. Seven. Not many warranties will cover you for seven years, unless you pay for extended coverage. Not many vehicles will fit your changing needs for seven years, either.

‎Leasing is a great way to get into a new vehicle, if your plan is to have a car payment for the rest of your driving days. The best candidates for leasing are those who use their vehicle for some type of business purpose, which can be beneficial for tax purposes. Consult an accountant, who can give you the best guidance for your unique financial needs. 

Every vehicle needs to have a certain level of basic equipment. The good news is that the majority of new vehicles are coming to market with an impressive amount of stuff, such as power windows, Bluetooth connectivity, even heated seats on some models. Before you start checking off every shiny thing on the menu, it’s a good idea to do some research.

You can sift through a few dozen reviews, though it’s a good idea to target first drive musings. These are the events where writers have learned about the available trim levels, and the percentage of sales that the manufacturer is projecting. We find that mid-grade models usually make up the largest percentage of sales, and tend to include such must-haves as air conditioning, upgraded interiors, and enhanced exterior treatments.

‎The equipment level that people want on a new car is the same as a used car. Basic, ‘stripped,’ models may seem like a great financial idea at the time, until the Humidex hits 45 degrees, without A/C, in a black car.

Accessories make the price of a car skyrocket. So, don’t fall for the shiny new bells and whistles, and stick hard to the basics.


Consider how you’ll want to use your vehicle, for work and play. If you’re a fitness buff, investigate the availability of rack systems ‎specifically designed for your gear, and your vehicle. Families should size up the ability to mount/dismount child seats. Think about the things that you would need during your day, and bring them along to see how they fit. A bad cupholder may seem like a little annoyance, though it gets even more annoying when you still have 83 months left to actually own it. Your travels may take you off the beaten path, which could make the requirement of an all-wheel/four-wheel drive system a necessity. 

I’m not trying to exclude a gender with that title; it’s actually an advertising slogan from the late, great Packard marque, and it still makes sense today. If you see a person emerging from a new/used vehicle that you’re considering, make a friendly introduction, and ask them about their ownership experience. It can be as simple as a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ or a detailed list of what’s driving them nuts.

Vehicles do experience issues, even when they’re brand new. A good resource for assessing a vehicle’s overall reliability is a search for recalls, and technical bulletins. Transport Canada notices/bulletins can be accessed at Transport Canada’s website. Many vehicles have dedicated owner forums online. There’s more sifting involved here, though as in life, the cream tends to rise to the top.