Fun, fast, but not too fast...
Being a petrolhead parent is hard. On the one hand, you want your kids to appreciate cars and the joy of driving as you do but, on the other, the roads are a dangerous place and it's going to take them a while to get the experience they need for you to be confident in their driving abilities. Also, you remember what you were like when you first got your license and a car and, well, we've all got stories to tell.
The key for helping your kid choose their first enthusiast car is making sure the focus isn't on speed. The car should be fun, but not enough fun for them to get themselves into trouble with too easily. The good news is there's plenty of choices for most budgets, and these are the ones we would recommend checking out first.
This is probably the gold standard for a keen new driver. It's fast, but not too fast and front-wheel-drive tends to be more forgiving of over-enthusiasm. Civic's are well known for their dependability so the chances of you're little angel being left stranded at the side of the road are minimized. It only comes in a manual, so there's a skill to be had that will last a lifetime and make sure they understand how to engage with a car. It's sporty but sensible so girlfriends or boyfriends won't be put off, and showing up for college or a job interview won't get them judged from the parking lot.
Like the Civic Si, an MX-5 will teach a young driver how to engage with a car and get the most out of it. They will have a huge amount of fun and not enough power to guarantee they'll get into trouble. Another plus side is that they can only take one passenger so they won't become the friend circle's taxi service or have distractions in the back seat.
Fun, lively, small, and thrifty on gas. The Fiesta ST has a lot in its favor if the pint-sized interior isn't a problem. It's rewarding to drive at any skill level while not being fast in a straight line, and even though it's not expensive, the ST comes standard with Apple Carplay and Android Auto so there's no excuse for distracted driving.
If the car has to be cheap then it has to be old, and there's a ton of hipster cool as well as old-school safety in the 240. There's also a ton of room for road trips and, if treated right, the old tank will go on forever. Later on, for a parent-kid project, there's also a lot of room for modifications when they get their next car, and an engine swap and some upgraded suspension could be in order.
While we're talking about old cars, we should mention the Crown Vic as one of the cheapest ways into a rear-wheel-drive V8 powered car. While they may suck down the gas, particularly with a lead-footed teenager at the wheel, they are hard to destroy and when treated with some respect will go many, many, miles before they die. The upside for parents is that when people see that shape and those headlights in the rear-view mirror they tend to slow down and that'll keep the kid's speed in check. The flip side is that people tend to think the drivers are cop-wannabes.
If the kid likes to drive but isn't into the blatantly sporty thing, the Mazda3 has a lot to offer. Reliable, practical, and more fun than it should be to drive - even if it's just around the corner to a friend or on a date to the cinema. It's also stylish and Mazda's interior game has been on a high for a while now.
Whether it's going by the name BRZ, 86, or FRS, we're talking about an underpowered rear wheel drive sports car here. So, not enough power to get the kid in too much trouble and all the grip and handling to get them enjoying their driving. If the MX-5 is too dainty or the idea of a soft-top is struck down, the BRZ is a great alternative.
If they really want a Mustang, then there's not much you can do but it is a bit of a cliche. However, the Camaro in V6 form is one of the unsung heroes when it comes to relatively inexpensive drivers cars - whatever your age. The V6 is more powerful than those you'll find in vintage Camaros, but in the modern world it's not too heavy on gas. Matched to the stick shift and the modern Camaro's chassis, it becomes a lot of fun and exudes cool.
Although the 80s and 90s nostalgia wave is pushing the price up, the 924 and 944 are still relatively affordable. If you do your homework and shop around, they're also very reliable. While they don't have the modern safety features parents tend to want, they do have the Porsche badge for coolness, an excellent chassis for an enthusiast, and they're really not that fast.
There's going to be negative comments about this one, and with good reason but, we'll get to that. The Mini is cute, quirky, and fun to drive. That makes it a great first car for a kid that has promise in developing an enthusiasm for cars. However, this is one for the richer parents to splash out on as the best bet is to buy new and then get rid of it before the odometer reaches 65,000 miles.
This is a car to do your homework on and shop around for, but ultimately is practical, rewarding to drive, and will teach the kid about the importance of maintenance whether they like it or not. It's also something unique to pull into the parking lot at school or college in. The RX-8 does have the reputation of being one of the worst best cars you can buy. In the plus column, they're great fun to drive, they're cheap to buy. But in the negative column, they can be a maintenance time pit and although the Wankel rotary engine is a masterpiece, it'll drink oil like a bro' drinks Monster Energy drinks. Then, sooner or later, the seals give out and the engine will need a rebuild. In short, an RX is an ongoing project for the kid that wants to do more than drive and you want to spend a lot of quality time in the garage with them.
Not only are older Jeeps affordable, but you have the added bonus that your pride and joy will be having all their fun at very low speeds. Off-roading isn't just about high intensity rock crawling or tackling complicated mountain passes though. If your kid is into any outdoor sport that benefits from using trails to reach fun places, then a Jeep is going to make their life easier. Also, parts are cheap, they're easy to work and learn on, and have an immense enthusiast community for finding help and advice.