By on March 1, 2013

Like Steve Lang, I’m always getting asked by friends and family for recommendations on cars for young drivers. Unlike Steve Lang, I don’t have the balls to publicly recommend the “tough love” approach of making a young driver buy his own car. After all, that would make me a hypocrite, since my own 16th birthday earned me a ten-year-old Volvo, which marked the beginning of my transition from a normal high-schooler to the dorkiest kid on campus. My fanny pack may have also played a role.

Instead of “tough love,” I politely provide a long list of car recommendations to friends and family, who ignore all of them and buy a Civic. This annoys me. It’s not that I don’t like the Civic, which has reliably provided mediocre transportation to three decades of Americans. It’s because I’ve found something better: the first-generation Lexus RX300.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are so blood-boilin’ mad at the fact that your own first car was a 1991 Pontiac LeMans hatchback that you’re going to quickly scroll down to the comments and write in all caps about how no TEENAGER should be driving a LEXUS. Of course, this is the same “chip on your shoulder” set that would quickly point out that “it’s just a fancy Toyota” if a co-worker bought one.

But I have my reasons for recommending an RX300 over the hallowed Honda Civic, so hear me out.

 

1. Quality. Parents who stick their kids with buying their own first car often forget about one important factor in first-car ownership. When it breaks down, the first call is to mommy and daddy. For the next six weeks, you’re carting them around to school and tennis lessons (or whatever kids do these days. Ecstasy parties?) while a mechanic scours junkyards searching for a shock absorber for a ’91 Pontiac LeMans hatchback.

In the RX300, this isn’t a problem, as demonstrated by the fact that every single example on Craigslist has between 220,000 and 440,000 miles, even though the only sign of wear is some brake dust.

You’re also very likely to find an RX300 in good shape. That’s because not one RX300 was bought by someone on a shoestring budget who thought it was “cool,” since it definitively is not. Instead, they were all purchased by wealthy people who spent two grand whenever the dealer asked nicely.

2. Cost. So you want a quality used car for your kids. But you don’t want to spend much on it, because it’s not as if you’re buying it for somebody really important, like yourself.

Again, the RX300 is a masterful purchase. Not one of these things is over ten grand, and most of them are closer to six. And you may even be able to get down to four grand if you’re willing to compromise on unimportant things like paint quality and total number of side mirrors.

3. Safety. Let’s all agree we don’t want our kids to be in an unsafe car. At this point, parents of young children are nodding as they think about how many airbags their new minivan has, while parents of moody teenagers are thinking “Eh, maybe I’ll take my chances.”

But I’m going to assume you want to protect your offspring. Once again, the Lexus is the right car. They all had dual airbags, side airbags and anti-lock brakes. Later models also came with vehicle skid control, the function of which is unknown except to calm worried parents. Being an SUV, it also rides higher than a typical car, which improves visibility. This is important since teens primarily view rearview mirrors as a way to check their hair.

4. Cool factor. This is where you parents really hit a home run. Your kid wants a BMW. You want him in a cheap, dependable car that won’t kill him. Buy him the RX300 and you both win. We already know it’s cheap, safe and reliable. If he ever complains it’s not cool, this is the time to play the “Lexus SUV” card. You know the one: “Son, I bought you a Lexus SUV! Do you know what I was driving when I was a kid? That’s right, a horse and buggy! You’re complaining about a Lexus SUV?! I walked uphill in the snow…”

This is sure to shut him up, or possibly just bore him until he stops complaining.

5. Practicality. Kids today have lots of stuff. The RX has a cargo area big enough to stow it, but not so big that kids can use it to make you a grandparent. In my experience, that may not stop them from trying.

6. Performance. What performance?! The original RX300 used a version of the spineless V6 that came out of the 1997 Camry. It produced 220 horsepower and 222 pound feet. And that was 14 years ago when it was new. Assuming you’re down to 200 horses now, you’re looking at 0-to-60 in nine seconds. Just like that Civic you were considering. The lack of power also reduces the rollover risk that’s so common in SUVs. Believe me: I’ve tried.

There’s another benefit here: fuel economy. It’s not really that good. Which means, assuming you make him pay for fuel, he will be stuck at home most nights while his friends are getting drunk and riding laundry baskets down the stairs. Score one for mom and dad.

7. Features. This is the part where you’re nice to your kid. You’ve checked all of your own boxes, so now you can check a few of his. Alloy wheels, heated seats, and a sunroof are on nearly every RX300. Most of them had navigation. Some even had a reversing camera. Sure, it ain’t a BMW. But it isn’t exactly a ‘91 LeMans, either.

Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, roadtripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute laptime on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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108 Comments on “1999-2003 Lexus RX300: The Perfect First Car...”


  • avatar
    crbf1

    Worth reading for “…. if you’re willing to compromise on unimportant things like … and total number of side mirrors” alone!!
    Can’t really counter any of your points, too.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Well thought out and presented. Kid better have a job though. Kids need jobs.

    • 0 avatar
      chaparral

      Why?

      AP/collegiate-classes-in-high-school pay significantly better than the Burger Barn.

      Get an A or B in 5 classes before you leave high school, one as a junior, two over the summer from junior to senior year, two as a senior, and you’ve knocked a semester off of an undergraduate degree – and probably enhanced your merit scholarship chances significantly. That’s five grand at State U, twenty grand at Private College, plus whatever scholarship gains you find. Then there’s the knowledge of what college classes are like, so you’re less likely to get in over your head and sink your GPA freshman year.

      Three six-hour shifts a week at the gas station bring home $100 or so, and over a year and a half that’s $7500. It’s better to pay for college at $30/hr after graduation than at $7.50/hr before it.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        I didn’t say anything about letting grades slack off because of work.

        • 0 avatar
          chaparral

          I didn’t think you did, either!

          I’m talking about night and summer courses at the local public college – in addition to high school – instead of working as a laundromat attendant.

          • 0 avatar
            Landcrusher

            Ah, I didn’t pay full attention to the slash. Things may have changed in 30 years, but college courses were mostly given little credit by other colleges in my day. You may get elective credit at best. Of course, I was there when they were starting the extreme tuition increases and trying to make sure everyone needed some summer or extra semester work to get many of the majors.

      • 0 avatar
        ClutchCarGo

        The real value of a crap job in high school is the motivation that it provides to stick with schooling so that you don’t wind up in a crap job as an adult. 3 months working the grill at a Dog N’Suds did it for me.

        • 0 avatar
          Mandalorian

          I agree that kids should focus more on long term earnings via academics, but a lot of colleges no longer take AP credit. Some of those that do only take the highest score of 5. I believe the College Board is suing a number of universities right now.

          Good Article. I have a similar pick for kids: 1994-1999 Cadillac Deville. Minus nav, it has all of the modern conveniences and with the big V8 over the front wheels, winter traction is good.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Uh 1st-gen Northstar WHAT?

            Don’t think so.

          • 0 avatar
            scrubnick

            Not even. I got a 5 on my AP Chem test and all I got credit for was “remedial” science. Good news was the year of chem I took in college was identical to the class I just aced in high school. I didn’t have to buy the book or take notes, that was worth it.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            Lower trims of the big-body Deville had the carryover 4.9 for a few years. GM had that engine pretty well sorted out after a decade of beta testing. Problem is that ’90s Devilles are already last-owner beater cars, so the likelihood of finding one worth spending money on is rather low.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Good point.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    “…every single example on Craigslist has between 220,000 and 440,000 miles…”

    “Alloy wheels, heated seats, and a sunroof are on nearly every RX300. Most of them had navigation. Some even had a reversing camera.”

    Look, I know that Toyota and Lexus make some reliable cars, but if you think there is some kind of fairy dust that prevents complex luxury vehicles with multiple hundreds of thousands of miles on them from starting to suffer from problems with all their electronic goodies and mechanical goodies, you’re fooling yourself.

    • 0 avatar
      Alexdi

      This. If the kid’s not a mechanic, this is not the best choice. And judging by the shenanigans of my friends at that age, I’d want to disable half the cylinders.

    • 0 avatar

      Honestly, if you buy anything newer than about 2000, this will be a problem. My advice: when stuff breaks, leave it broken. This will help teens appreciate the things that still work.

      • 0 avatar
        CA Guy

        Easier said than done. In 2010 my cousin’s 2003 RX 300 (original owner with 87K on the odo) suddenly went crazy with electrical problems – windows, door locks, seats – the dealer wanted 4-5K to get all those features back together. The Nav and A/C were going down as well – yes, teens can do without those items functioning. But non-functioning electric windows, locks, seats can make a car fairly useless.

        • 0 avatar
          markholli

          “But non-functioning electric windows, locks, seats can make a car fairly useless.”

          @CA Guy: can you say “#firstworldproblem”?

          Maybe you were sheltered, or maybe my teenage years were much harder than I thought, but having any of those electricals malfunction hardly renders a car “useless.”

          I have personally driven self-tapping screws into two separate window tracks to keep power windows with failed regulators from rolling down their tracks. I’ve also reached through passenger or rear doors to access a drivers door with a broken power lock. I’ve also propped up a broken seat with an old couch cushion.

          Call me a redneck, but I say “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

          • 0 avatar
            Marko

            But why go through the trouble if you don’t have to (i.e. just buy a simpler car with fewer things to break)?

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      I’d initially agree, based on experience with other luxury cars, but TrueDelta says otherwise (at least for the ’04): http://www.truedelta.com/Lexus-RX/reliability-164

      10 repairs per 100 cars per year. The first ’04 RX’s are now a full decade old (launched in March 2003). That’s pretty freaking good, and better than many new cars.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    These cars are not without fault. My mom has one and before 100K miles the 4WD transmission crapped the bed, and she is now struggling with the dreaded sludge monster. Also, this late in the game, these feel more like rebadged Toyotas than Lexuses. Personally I would stick my kid in something like a Solara.

    • 0 avatar
      Dingleberrypiez

      Unless you’re talking about a different year, or the four cylinder, the Solara has the the same engine, transmission, and chassis as the RX300. Same with the ES300, Avalon, and Camry XLE v6. All basically the same car, though I think with the Toyotas the variable valve timing came later.
      Anyone of those cars would make an excellent first car. Personally, I think they’d be excellent daily-driver basic transportation for anyone, if you can stomach fuel consumption at around 20mpg. I agree with the other comments that the lexus may have electrical problems. Maybe the Avalon is the better choice?

      • 0 avatar
        Idemmu

        I agree. My first car was a 1996 Toyota Avalon that my mom helped me buy in my senior year of high school. It was good basic transportation, which netted me a few nods in the coolness category because not too many inner city kids were driving around in these types of cars. It also thought me the importance of maintaining a car properly, specifically oil changes. The engine grenades three cylinders on valentines day, while I was on my way to my then girlfriends college for some valentines day, “ehem” dinner. I also learned how expensive it was for a kid to pay for replacement engine on his own at an indy shop.

        • 0 avatar
          Dingleberrypiez

          This is amusing because my DD is a 1996 Avalon XLS (bias revealed!), albeit a cherry one purchased three years ago with 64k miles. Perfect for my SF Bay Area commute in traffic, following a significant stereo upgrade. Having a weekend car helps cure the “beige.”

          In fact, the RX300 engine is basically a later iteration of the 1MZ-FE engine first introduced in the 1992 Camry v6. Despite being named a Ward’s best engine for the year, those early models were subject to sludging if you pushed the oil change intervals (hence your experience).

          This was well documented and mostly sorted out by the RX300’s introduction, though not without exception as noted by sportyaccordy.

        • 0 avatar
          FuzzyPlushroom

          A ’90s to early-2000s Camry or Avalon strikes me as a perfect first car – slightly better handling and nearly as much room as the RX, equal or greater dependability, and for those who’d try to make their kid learn stick-shift right off the bat, you can have that in a Camry.

          I mean, my first car was a Volvo older than I was, so maybe I’m no expert, but it seems logical enough.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    This car WILL get destroyed. The only thing in question is how your child will accomplish this.

    I wouldn’t spend more than $3000 on a first car. That rules out most SUV’s due to their ridiculously perceived value over a car. That includes this Lexus and excludes ratty 90’s Blazers.

    I would recommend an LS400 or ES300 over this. They have far more cool-factor, are cheaper to operate, and won’t end up on the off-road trail to “See what this thing can do”.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I’d have to agree with the ES300. It’s going to be cheaper to run gas-wise, have less miles most likely, be cheaper to buy, and less likely to roll over. It’ll also hold less unbuckled occupants when they crash it at 2AM after going to Taco Bell.

      The I30 works as well, though I dunno if that’s cool enough.

      The LS400 in budget will likely be less taken care of and have higher miles. Plus that’s sort of an old guy car, not really that “cool” with the square body style.

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      I mostly agree, but just for laughs, go on over to the Edmunds site and take a look at their ’96 ES300 long-termer with 154k miles on it. While you’re there, maybe you can tell them how to keep its check engine light off for more than three weeks in a row.

      I think that one immutable law of the universe is that young drivers have to drive shitty cars – it’s just a fact of life, like adolescence. No one enjoys going through it, but…there it is.

      • 0 avatar
        Landcrusher

        Ignore the check engine light. Reset it for inspections if necessary.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        “I think that one immutable law of the universe is that young drivers have to drive shitty cars – it’s just a fact of life, like adolescence.”

        I think it’s just an economic reality for most. As already mentioned, why spend a lot of money on a kid’s first car when the probability of collision, abuse and general lack of maintenance is high? All but the few can truly afford to buy their kids nice cars and then take the hit when they ruin them.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        “I think that one immutable law of the universe is that young drivers have to drive shitty cars – it’s just a fact of life, like adolescence. No one enjoys going through it, but…there it is.”

        +1000, sir.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        We aren’t talking about getting something as old as the 96.

    • 0 avatar
      285exp

      I agree with the ES300 too, and not just because that’s what I did. I bought a 97 new for my wife, drove it myself after I bought her a new 2004 ES330, gave it to my daughter to drive in high school and the first two years of college, and then a couple of years ago when it hit 150k I gave her my low mileage 2000 ES300 and I’m still driving the 97 now. Around here you can find Gen 3’s (97-01) with less than 100k for $6-7k and for $3-5k with less than 200k. They’re cheap to insure and operate, and are typically Toyota reliable. I keep an eye on the local Lexus dealers used car inventory for low mileage ones that Grandma traded in on a new one. That way there’s a better chance that it’s been maintained properly and you can avoid the dreaded sludge motor. Try not to buy them from the typical 2nd and 3rd owners, those are the ones that haven’t been maintained and are more likely to have the serial CEL issues, need to have the timing belt replaced, or have had maintenance issues deferred.

  • avatar
    david42

    Right criteria, wrong answer. Needs to be slower and less tippy. (Tippy has nothing to do with power. It’s what happens when you’re already going 50 mph and swerve to avoid a surprise–or something you should’ve seen.)

    Actually, I disagree about one criterion: features. Airbags, power steering/brakes, traction control, a/c, and ABS are necessary. Anything beyond that is the privilege of those who buy with their own dollars.

    • 0 avatar
      photog02

      Yes! I was getting ready to post this very same thing. The high center of gravity does give better visibility, but it also increases the likelihood of a roll over. Also, the idea that a slower car is less tippy is just plain wrong.

      • 0 avatar
        FuzzyPlushroom

        Exactly. There are plenty of Samurais, four-cylinder Broncos and Troopers, and OHV Explorers that suggest just this. All trucks, yes, rather than tall crossovers, but if a teenager can get a Volvo 240 onto two wheels (ahem…) then s/he could easily tip over something substantially taller.

        I wouldn’t say working A/C is necessary if you live north of, say, Pennsylvania. I’ve never had it in New Hampshire, though two of the three cars I’ve bought myself have had sunroofs instead. Down South, well, yeah, of course. I wouldn’t call traction control a necessity, either, necessarily. Otherwise, definitely. I might add power locks to that list, at least in the city, to avoid any unpleasantries after a bit of forgetfulness.

        • 0 avatar
          conswirloo

          Comparing a RX300/Highlander to a truck based SUV isn’t really fair. We replaced a 97 Explorer with an 03 highlander(same as RX300 basically). There is no comparison in handling between the two. The explorer felt unsteady making swerves at anything over 30mph. The highlander has AWD, ESC, and traction control and is ridiculously planted.

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            Exactly. Besides, Toyota is often criticized by enthusiasts for the aggressiveness of their stability control as it is installed in their CUVs. If you want to get an RX to the point of instability, you need to leave the pavement at high speed first. Otherwise all that happens when you swerve the wheel at high speed is rapid deceleration that you probably didn’t want.

  • avatar
    chaparral

    Why would an RX300 be any better at any of this than a Subaru Impreza or Legacy 2.5? Yes, at some point, you’ll have to replace the headgaskets, but that’s a one-weekend or one-grand repair.

  • avatar
    clocker

    I disagree with the entire premise of this article.
    I want your newly minted sprouts driving around in the smallest, crappiest car they’ll fit into…a Smart, a Nano…a Pinto even.
    They should be in constant fear of the consequences of their own mistakes and even more important, the never ending stupidity of their fellow drivers.
    They should enter their car with butts already clinched, just waiting for the unsignaled lane change, random brake application or failure to yield
    that are so common today.
    Inoculated with fear, they’ll be highly motivated to buy their own (presumably better) vehicles and the memory of the first hellish drives will temper their silliness even as they’re cloaked in more safety features.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Eh…get off my lawn, you noisy kids! When I got my first car at 15, it came with most of its interior bits and body panels boxed where the back seat should’a been and piled in the trunk, where rusty Swiss cheese had taken over where the floor pan used to reside.

    Through the rest of that summer, I got a crash course in Zen and Mustang maintenance under the watchful guidance of my father (who just happened to pass away on this very day 30 years ago).

    I think every kid should have a cool experience like that if possible. Maybe that’s just a long-gone era in motoring history, when a father and his kid could wrench an old car back to life. But I hope not.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    haha.. but April Fool’s is a month away. No way this is a good buy for a first timer. Flex pipe failure, exhaust manifold, cooling fan failure (big $ repair) all come to mind. Come on man!

  • avatar
    Spartan

    Meh, I don’t know about getting a Lexus for a teenager as a first car. Teenagers are annoying enough as it is, and a Lexus will only make them come off as extremely pretentious, even if it’s an older one. How about a Toyota Highlander? Same ingredients in a different package. That would be a better first car.

    My niece is about to get my 94 Ford Taurus SHO MTX for her first car. She doesn’t really text much, so a manual transmission will help prevent her from doing it and have her concentrate on driving.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      The character she will have built after driving that car over a significant amount of time will be invaluable throughout her life.

      Just think of the skills that the brand-new Civic set are missing out on:

      -Learning how to find and bargain with a good mechanic to work on an old heap
      -Being resourceful at finding cheap parts for obscure machinery
      -Learning how tow truck drivers make a living

      It sounds like I’m joking, but you truly do grow up faster when your daily driver is a daily problem solving ordeal.

      • 0 avatar
        FuzzyPlushroom

        No joke! I’ve stuck with ancient Volvos for good reason… every young driver should have to undergo that ‘am I going to make it home’ experience at least once, and either know what’s wrong and how to fix it, or who to call when they see certain lights come on.

        Not /frequently/, mind you. Just little things.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem is the RX300 actually beat the Highlander to the market by several years. Thus, the RX300 is, perhaps counterintuitively, cheaper to buy used.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    A 2004/5 F-150 work truck edition, regular cab with the solid 4.6 V8 will set you back around $4,000 with 170K miles in fair condition. They have a 5 star crash rating and the bonus of no back seat passengers to distract. If you don’t already have a truck, it’d handy for The Home Depot runs or whatever.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Truly, if you want to help your kids, and this isn’t just my chip talking (I acutally had a pretty nice first car that I bought myself), the best help is no help when it comes to purchasing cars.

    If you really want to help them, hold a flashlight, show them how to change oil and brakes, show them how to find a trustworthy mechanic, show them the time and care it takes to keep POS machinery going on a shoestring so they will one day appreciate the luxuries of a new car and what it takes to buy one themselves.

    Whatever, if the EOPC parents can’t see it when they dish it out, this advice is probably falling on blind eyes.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Another enjoyable article Doug, but I would have to disagree with the RX300 for teenagers for a number of reasons:

    (1) Kids shouldn’t get anything really nice because they’ll just destroy it.
    (2) Kids shouldn’t have cars worth stealing/breaking into.
    (3) Generally speaking, kids shouldn’t have anything with a serious amount of speed/power.
    (4) Lexus (along with BMW/Merc/Audi/Infiniti/Acura) will only re-enforce the delusional entitlement disorder which a good deal of teenagers seem to suffer from. Feel free to disagree, but I thought I was “worth” a used 5.0 Mustang when I was in HS (96-99)… looking back that was a bit far fetched.

    Kids need something cheap, durable, reasonably safe, and a little underpowered. So besides the appropriate hand me down, or used Camcord, Corollic, GM J-body, Saturn SLx, Cobalt, Focus etc, I’ll thrown 80s/90s Volvo out there. A running 240 or 740 is just what the doctor ordered, safe, slow and cheap… but failing that the 850 makes a relatively cheap runabout for town and school (avoid the later S70).

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with your points, however I would argue that a 14 year old Lexus with 150k miles isn’t exactly “really nice”! The Volvo I mention in the first paragraph, by the way, was an 850. My family spent twice its value keeping it running during the two years we had it. Based on the responses here, some have had the same experience with the RX300! Proving, of course, the only thing that’s really true in life: your mileage may vary.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        I think 150K Lex of any model is pretty nice for a kid starting out (hell I’d drive one now) but I may be a little biased as my friends and I had used up 80s GM X-body, 80s GM G-body, and Chrysler K-cars as starter cars back in the day (back in my day we walked 80 miles to school and had to chop wood for the furnace at home, and get off my lawn ya lousy punks). I suppose if you can swing an RX300 at the right price, it would be a reasonable runner for the kids.

        Ah yes that’s true the Volvo 850 is somewhat hit and miss, I’ve seen owners get many cheap miles out of it and some who plow thousands into one in a similar timeframe. Really 240 is the best choice if you can find one.

        “Your mileage may vary” sounds like a great trademark ending to your articles in the future Doug.

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      Stop recommending 240s, or you’ll deplete my future supply! :-P

      Seriously, though, a non-turbo ’90+ 740 or 940 is a good choice, as is an equally-non-turbo 850, especially if the latter, counterintuitively, /doesn’t/ have traction control (saves you one more repair down the road, and doesn’t make much difference anyway; they all have decent ABS). I’ve owned ‘em all, liked ‘em all, between 18 and 21, so I can speak for their… quirks.

  • avatar
    vvk

    First of all, anything with automatic transmission is off my list.

    Second, while I would certainly prefer a 1991 Pontiac LeMans hatchback (a German designed car) to this monstrosity, I would not want my kids driving something that small. I would probably go for a nice, slow Volvo instead. Or a non-turbo SAAB.

  • avatar
    StaysCrunchy

    I tried my hand at being a salesman at one of those “buy here/pay here” car lots many years ago, and I think some of the criteria we used to buy cars applies here. Mainly because the majority of our customers assumed that since we were carrying the note, we were also somehow responsible for fixing every little thing that went wrong with the car while they were still making payments.

    Our favorite cars to buy at the auction were late model Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Why? Because nobody under the age of 65 ever buys a brand-new Buick or Oldsmobile, so like this Lexus, whenever the dealer told them they needed a new angle articulator or Johnson rod, out came the checkbooks. The only thing they (arguably) don’t have that this Lexus does is the “cool” factor.

    If I had kids they’d be getting a late-model American luxury/premium car.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I’m curious, which brand/model would you choose?

      • 0 avatar
        StaysCrunchy

        Hmmm, good question. I guess I’m not as up on my GM products as I probably was back then, but going by the same year range as mentioned for this Lexus (1999-2003) I guess maybe a Regal or LeSabre? You can still find plenty of low mileage examples around, and every NAPA and Autozone on the planet stocks every part you’d ever need for one. If I wanted to go the F/L/M route I might go with a Sable or even a last-gen Continental if I was feeling particularly saucy, although the Continental can be troublesome and expensive when things go wrong. Still, that 32v DOHC 4.6 would take care of the performance aspect.

        Of course, if I was a teenager, I wouldn’t want to be seen in any of those cars though!

        • 0 avatar
          danio3834

          The last gen Continentals were pretty nice rides and didn’t have the Northstar problems of the STS. I would have loved an Intech Continental in high school, although I’m probably atypical.

          • 0 avatar
            StaysCrunchy

            They were good cars, and I’d have mine parked right there beside yours.

            The main problems/issues with those cars were the air ride suspension (on a Linclon… go figure) and the transmissions, more so the former than the latter. That, and the fact that the powertrain is absolutely crammed into that engine bay makes them tough to work on.

            It also didn’t help that the original MSRP was only a few grand less than a Mercedes-Benz E320.

          • 0 avatar
            FuzzyPlushroom

            Yeah, I’d have a 3.8-powered Buick or a last-gen Continental, no question… in the latter case, I’d not want to be the one repairing it, as Crunchy said, but hey.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Lesabre, while 3800 powered, has its issues from 2000-2005, a 3800 Regal is the much better choice between the two IMO. If you want to go all out its Park Ave all the way (or obviously Panther).

          Last gen Conti is pretty sweet, I’ve often thought of one for myself since they are almost free around here (albeit many of the examples for sale are less than clean). I think they also suffered from some sort of suspension problem too guys, I did some research last year and thought I read about an expensive non-air ride issue with the front suspension that seems to happen to all of them (the ball joints wear out quickly maybe I can’t recall).

    • 0 avatar
      MadHungarian

      Exactly, exactly. Actually this is the advice I give to anyone looking for a good car in the under-$10K range. Find the lowest-mileage, well maintained LeSabre, V6 Lucerne, first-gen Lacrosse, Town Car, Crown Vic or Grand Marquis you can afford. Those might not exactly be a teenager’s first choices, but it’s not like the mom-car Lexus that is the subject of this piece is either. IMO the premium commanded in the used car market by Toyondas, especially those with under 100K miles, isn’t worth it. When buying used, depreciation is your friend.

  • avatar
    fastwilly

    I heard somewhere that these have a high rate of transmission failure, is anybody able to confirm?

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Doug,

    The RX300s are KNOWN for transmission issues. The v6 combined with AWD and the heavy weight led to a rash of failures. Just google it, many threads on the Lexus forums. Typical failure is around 80-120k miles.

    Secondly, a 10+ year old power-everything, loaded AWD car with a transverse V6 is an absurd suggestion for a beginning driver. Regardless of your quality claims and past service history, they WILL need maintenance. You’d be surprised just how many well off lexus owners skimp on preventative maintenance. And guess how much parts are going to cost to replace? Spec out a shock for one of these, or a control arm. How about a full timing belt job on the transverse v6? Heck, even a tuneup will cost big bucks after you consider getting at the back row of sparkplugs, fluid for the multiple differentials, and any torn Cv boots (there are four of them on an AWD car).

    Besides the transmissions, yes the cars are built well, but they aren’t invincible. Seals still harden and leak, rubber bushings wear out.

    Lastly, how about insurance on one of these? If you do liability it may be alright, but good luck getting sheetmetal replaced in case of an accident.

    Thinking outside the Civic/corolla mold, I think a base model ford ranger would be a fun car for a young guy to own, a girl might like a cobalt coupe, or a Camry solara with the inline 4. Older fullsize domestics might be fun for the kid that appreciates that kind of style and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Great first car: ten-year-old Focus hatchback. They had the startup bugs worked out, they are easy to work on and parts are cheap. The were actually good cars, as opposed to a Cobalt or whatever Chrysler POS there was at that time. And you can get a pretty nice one with under 100,000 miles for less than $2k – people selling ten-year-old Civics with low miles think they’re going to get $5k for them.

    • 0 avatar
      photog02

      Great idea! Much better than the idea of a SUV.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      I’m sure where you are, but 2003 Focuses routinely trade in the 3-4K range here. One with under 100k miles could touch close to 5 with the right options.

      They are decent cars as you mentioned, but not that cheap. I have an ’01 ZX3 with 140k that I’ll probably end up getting $2500 for during this sweet sweet tax season.

    • 0 avatar
      corntrollio

      “people selling ten-year-old Civics with low miles think they’re going to get $5k for them.”

      And they will too — a family member sold one a few months ago. It was older than 10 years old with right around 100K miles, and they got more than $5K.

      I’m assuming BHPH lots will offer them for $7K or $8K easily, and even probably some traditional dealers will too.

  • avatar
    Mykl

    hmmm, I’ve been looking for an alternative to a Camcord or minivan for the lady, maybe I’ll give one of these a close look some time.

    Are the 2wd transmissions prone to failure?

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    I had an i30 and it was fantastic. It was a 96, I got my license at 16 in 2000, and I drove it every day until just over a year ago. My parents were horrible with maintenance and they even used the car to tow their 3000+ lb boat and trailer for a few years. I’m certain I could count on one hand the number of times it left me stranded in 12 years and 230k-ish miles. It was comfortable, smooth, quiet, quick enough and maneuverable enough to keep me out of trouble but not so quick it was easy to get in trouble. Had 4 wheel abs discs, front (although no sode airbags), leather, sunroof, and a nice bose stereo. Fuel economy was tolerable…averaged mostly low to mid 20s on premium the whole time I owned it.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I had a 97 and I was always impressed with it. I got between 21-23mpg, with mostly highway driving.

    • 0 avatar
      mypoint02

      Wasn’t the I30 of that era just an Infiniti version of the Maxima? Had the same motor if I remember correctly. Good looking cars and tons of features.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Same engine (an excellent 3.0V6), different interior, different suspension, more sound insulation, and power everything.

        Another bonus – the engine had a timing chain, so no belts to worry about changing on your cheap and cheerful teenager’s car.

        I kinda miss that car. Mine was pearl white, got a lot of looks since you don’t see them anymore. My dad always said “Just looks like a Buick to me,” which I found pretty insulting.

  • avatar
    Mrb00st

    Hard to disagree, it’s like the used Volvo Wagon of our generation. VERY nice cars to drive, if pokey and boring, but hey – first car. One caveat: those 3.0’s have oil sludging issues that you should probably make sure have been rectified before purchase, or all this good planning goes down the drain when it needs a new engine!

  • avatar
    Mrb00st

    real answer: stick-shift FC3S RX-7. Cheap. not fast. They’ll know the unimaginable joy of a real sports car, and the crushing despair of being totally broke keeping it running and fueled.

  • avatar
    gasser

    I owned two RX300s. First ’99 AWD. I hated the AWD and turned it in at the end of the lease. No problems in 19,000 miles over 3 years. The second, a 2002 FWD was only driven by my wife and me ( over 40 crowd) and serviced by the book at the dealer. The auto trans went out 3 months past the 7 year warranty, with about 70K on the clock. Lexus generously gave me a free rebuilt trans, and the dealer charged me $1200 to swap it. Three months later, blue smoke came out the exhaust and the dealer wanted $3500 for valve stem seals. I traded it in two days later, unrepaired.
    Don’t ask me if a used RX300 is a good used car……I bought my kids Hondas.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    If my kids are lucky there coming of driving age will corrospond with the replacement of one of our vehicles and I’ll allow him to work off around the house whatever the lowball trade in offer was and he can have that car…probably a clapped out Hyundai Tucson. Otherwise I will encourage him to start saving when he is 14 or so and let him use my tools, air compressor, and my own knowledge of keeping old cars running. So long as it is safe (brakes work, frame not rusted out, and won’t leave him stranded), I don’t really care if the windows and AC don’t work, the radio wont talk to an iPod. I am a phone call away and as his Father I would have no problem helping him retrieve his vehicle. Should I have to cart him around, so be it as I am his father and this is one of those parental responsibilities…unlike buying him a Lexus.

    Another option I have thought about is getting a project a few years out and us getting it in shape together by his 16th birthday. Then he has a nice ride that he has some money and sweat in and as such is less likely to destroy it doing something stupid. An old school diesel Benz with a stick comes to mind.

    Either way though, one ticket and he gets to pay the insurance.

  • avatar
    trumpet12345

    Except how many calls to “mommy” or “daddy” really just get transferred to a garage? Seriously, I’m 21 and just finished my undergrad working toward medical school. It is more of a this year or next year depending on timing and having loans lined up, but I’ve taken far more interest than most in trying to learn how to work on the simple things on cars that fail a lot.

    I say one of the best cars you’ll find used is a Geo Prizm. Ask any younger non-car buff and I doubt they know the “Geo” brand, that is was GM’s division of rebaging some cheap and useful cars from other countries (hence Geo).

    Go for the 1.6L [4agf I believe is the engine], manual if you can, 3 speed if you can’t. Many know how to rebuild the tranny or engine in their sleep if it has to come to it. That 3 speed is a dog, but no one has to heart to put it down due to the longevity. The 1.6: isn’t as known as the other Toyota 1.8 [7agf?] engine for oil burning, is decent on gas, easy to work on for maintenance, and will help take the mystery out of cars.

    Nothing is more empowering than car knowledge in this era, as replacing spark plugs, wires-even a cap and rotor are simple; yet how many do you know that own an inline four that give you a reason not to know how to work on it? This is why I started learning. No way am I going to pay someone over a hundred dollars to swap 4 plugs I could do in twenty minutes without breaking a sweat.

    Go for the Geo, its even cheaper than a Chevy Prizm because its a dead brand and way cheaper than the Corolla it is.

    You’ll likely find one with body rust, but as long as the main structure isn’t harmed I recommend learning car painting. It too is fairly easy and there are legitimate clear coats that can be brushed on with a high (not 88 cent) quality foam brush that foam out. I’ve used KBS Diamond Finish clear coat and used automotive touch up for base coat in a rattle can. Get good with both and your spot jobs will be cheaper than investing in the equipment you HAVE to buy so you don’t get POISONED by the isocyanates. They are not an issue if you wear nitrile gloves (latex won’t protect you) and don’t atomize paints containing them. I’ve used this on a “buy here pay here” Astro that had massive rust issues, bubbling paint, and even holes in the sheet metal from neglect.

    You have to take care of the rust though, and it will take more work if you have to have it 100% smooth. Laugh at you want though-Rusty metal primer from rustoleum mixed with an Alkyd enamel catalyst (containing isocyanates) penetrates to bare metal (within reason of depth of rust) and provides a sound surface to work from that will not just bubble if you paint over the rust with urethane base coat or crappy “primers” that are just phosphoric acid and a lacquer clear together.

    Until you get good it won’t be perfect, but you can take what appears to be a beater and make it a “better”.

    I’m checking out a cheap Geo Prizm now with rust issues. I hate the color so I’ll be repainting it eventually anyway. In the mean time I fix the paint damage, and completely do the under body with coal tar epoxy after I deal with the rust.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      Right on!

      I cut my teeth on my parent’s rusting 1990 Civic in high school, most of my time was spent repairing (non-critical) rust on the body, along with ball joints, control arms, CV axles, and brakes. The car was loud, rattly, and slow, but I loved it. I waxed it’s wonderful metallic brown paint twice a year, and kept the poop-brown interior immaculate.

      At the end of my undergrad, I was bequeathed the old family car, our 1998 MPV. More of the same in terms of rust battles, but now with corroding A/C lines, leaking gaskets and seals, leaking air shocks, timing belt replacement, and driveshaft vibrations. Once again, I cherished the car, shampooing the carpets and taking care of every little rock chip.

      Finally I have my first job out of college, I saved up enough to buy a used 2012 Civic. You really appreciate having a problem free new car after busting your knuckles and forking over some serious cash to pay for parts. Except in my case, I decided to keep the Mazda around, masochist that I am :)

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I was given the same advice about Geo in hs when Geo was still around, Geo Prism is/was value in the used market,

  • avatar
    silverkris

    Funny you should mention insurance – maybe promise the kid you’ll buy a car and he/she has to pay for the insurance? You’ll probably come out ahead.

  • avatar
    mrcool1122

    My first car in 2001 was a ’99 RX300! It was such a mom-mobile but the thrill of mobility outweighed the shame. No cool-factor whatsoever, but who cares. It was surprisingly unstoppable in Minnesota snow. I’ve not been behind the wheel of an SUV since, so I guess it did its job.

    • 0 avatar
      mrcool1122

      But now that I think about it, that car was completely tired and worn-out by 80,000 miles. Suspension and transmission issues killed it, I think I remember. I know teenagers aren’t the best stewards but it really ought to have lasted longer. How is anyone gonna find a low-mileage one for their dumb kids, Doug?!

  • avatar

    Hey Doug, love your articles. This one is fascinating. Only in America would a Lexus SUV be considered a good for car for a KID! You guys are absolutely out of your minds. You rock!

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      Marcelo,

      Good point. Back in the day, some of us kids drove cheap, used up Chevys and Fords. There were no faux luxury Toyotas to be had. On the other hand, a running POS could be had for less tnan $100. Drive it for a year and send to the big crusher. Then go get another one.

      • 0 avatar

        Hey Felix,

        Cars are being massified in Brazil just now. I regularly see 70s Beetles advertised for R$3000 (US$1,500), beat up 80s Fiat 147s for R$2000. A mostly running Chevy Corsa from the 90s will cost you R$6000 to R$9000. It’s not as easy here. I recently bought a 2005 Ford Ka and paid R$13,000 for it.

        America, despite all the problems is still truly the land of milk and honey.

        • 0 avatar
          Felix Hoenikker

          Marcelo,

          Those prices are painful. They make the inflated used car prices in the US look reasonalble. But, cars are only one factor in a country’s culture.
          The last time I was in Brazil in the late 90’s, I went out to lunch with the president of the Brazilian division of my previous employer. He told me that there was a Brazilian saying that went like this:

          “For cars, you want German,
          For money, you wnat American,
          For women, you want Brazilian.”

          From what I remember, he was right about the last item.

          • 0 avatar

            Must of been an old timer. I agree with you, though in Brazil the dollar is still a hedge against economic uncertainty. So the man got two out of three.

          • 0 avatar

            just so you have an idea, the original invoice or receipt was in the manual. The lady who first bought the Ka paid R$24800 in Oct 2004. A brand new Ka equipped as mine will be more than R$28000. So an eight year old car is still worth almost 50% of a brand new one. Don’t think that happens in the developed world, specially the US

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I was shocked – shocked! – by point #5. You think kids can’t make grandkids in the back? They’ll put the back seat down! The problem is all the windows. No shocks can keep the car motionless with whoopie going on, and the activity will draw a crowd. There’s a blue nose in every crowd, so while the coitus interruptus may save you from grandkids, expect to be seeing a bail bondsman, and learning about court costs. Keeping THAT off your kid’s “permanent record” will cost you.

  • avatar
    ajla

    $6000?

    Easy there Rockefeller.

    • 0 avatar
      slylikeafox

      They can be had for as low as $4k.

      At that price point you could even semi-reasonably ask them to go halfsies with you (AKA cave in after they made $1000 and then no call no show to their job to go make out with someone).

  • avatar
    01 ZX3

    I’m thinking a Crown Vic (preferably an Interceptor) would make a better first car. It’s much more simple so there’s less to go wrong. If something does go wrong, it’s much cheaper to fix

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Finally a sensible choice. My son actually got our old Taurus with 150K, that had been sideswiped lightly. Hardly noticeable until you get close, but enough damage that the check we got from insurance was more than we paid for the car. IF he can drive it w/o damaging it and doing the maintenance and repairs until his sister gets her license then he will get my Grand Marquis and the daughter will get the Taurus. I had been driving the Taurus and the starter was starting to crank slow on occasion. So before he was allowed to take it solo he had to change the starter and do an oil change. I supervised and cracked the one mounting bolt loose that he was having trouble with. We then disassembled the old starter and I showed him how it worked and what was wrong with it. I really should have made him rebuild it, but a brand new starter was about the same price as the parts to rebuild it right, while a “rebuilt” starter from the local parts store was twice the price.

  • avatar
    EchoChamberJDM

    RX is a poor choice. Sludge issues, transmission issues on the 4WD system, electrical issues all abound – even on well kept models. You can get better cars for the price. Or, get an old used Grand Cherokee for a lot cheaper, but still have the same effect. Better yet, pick up my daily driver 1998 Toyota Avalon, has side airbags and ABS for the kiddies, but cheaper than a Camry of the same vintage. A few oil leaks and worn out struts, but runs good enough to get me to work and back for the sub-$1000 price I paid for it.

  • avatar
    xantia10000

    My recommendation: find an already mildly broken-down used car for really cheap and fix it.

    I bought a 1987 Civic for $400, and I quickly learned what it meant to have worn-out shocks, a burned out clutch, rusted-out muffler, and a messed-up carb.

    $1000 bucks later, I had a great-running (but ugly-as-sin) fun-to-drive little car that took me through high school and college. It would have been even longer if the carb didn’t finally crap out and require another thousand bucks alone to fit a new one since a rebuild wasn’t possible. But carb problems are probably not all that relevant anymore in a more modern hunkoshit :)

  • avatar
    baggins

    Fun post to read, but I think an older luxury vehicle is rarely the right answer to the first car question. Kids dont need sunroofs,power seats, automatic climate control, etc. Not much utility to them and just something else to break.

    My 2011 4cyl Accord will be about 8 years old when my son is of age drive I’ll probably just give him that. Solid safety scores, not a ton of power, washing-machine like reliability is likely.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Better yet is that you give your kid your older car and get a new car for yourself. That is what my parents did and I had a safe and reliable vehicle. When I was a senior in college I bought my own late model used car.

    • 0 avatar
      baggins

      Jeff – I agree and that the biggest issue with my plan, dont know if I want to drive my accord for 6-7 more years. The car is everything I expected it to be thus far, but one gets a hankering for change.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    In part the answer to the “what car to get the kid” question depends on how said kid views cars. If she/he is never going to see them as other than appliances, then find a well maintained appliance that won’t cost an arm and a leg to fix. To me, that points to something like a LeSabre or Grand Marquis, or a Focus if you want to go smaller.

    But if your kid exhibits any gearhead tendencies, for heaven’s sake don’t saddle her/him with a mom car; find a way to indulge them that won’t cause you to lose sleep at night. Something that looks cool but isn’t crazy fast, and something they can do some of their own work on. Older 4 and 6 cylinder Fox body Mustangs. That’s just one example, there are others. Maybe something with a manual transmission.

    You might be surprised what kids think is cool. When my daughter was in college in Santa Cruz, CA in the previous decade, she had a Volvo 240 wagon and the kids who had hand-me-down mom cars envied her.

    In my experience the most conservative young drivers are the ones that have some kind of non-performance collectible or unusual car that they highly treasure. A ’77 Impala coupe may not have airbags, but if your kid is waxing and detailing it every weekend, and doing some of his own wrenching, he’s not going to take chances with it, and that might count for as much in the long run.

    I also think it is important for a kid’s first car NOT to have traction control, stability control, blind spot alerts, rear vision cameras, etc. I’m on the fence about ABS, depending in part on whether roads get snowy/icy where you live. Why? I think it is important for young people to learn to drive properly, learn how to LOOK for hazards to the sides and behind, and learn how a car behaves in corners, on wet roads, etc. Otherwise, they are wholly dependent on all those gizmos to bail them out, which they will regret when the gizmo malfunctions, or (more likely) they get in a situation which exceeds the gizmo’s ability to save them from themselves, and they don’t know what to do.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @baggins–I would just get another 6 or 7 years of reliable service out of the Accord and give your son a car that you know has been properly maintained and is reliable. My wife bought one of the first Accords new, a 1977 Accord hatchback with a 5 speed manual which she had for 17 years. It is hard to get bored with something that gives you good and dependable service and that costs little to maintain. That is money in the bank.

  • avatar
    chaparral

    The most reliable, cheapest to run car I’ve ever dealt with was a 1994 Mazda Miata.

    Find me a trouble area other than “rust” and “tops”. There aren’t any! Ridiculously abuse-tolerant. Ridiculously fun to drive. Spec Pinata got a lot of them but there are still a lot left.


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