Go for a supermini or funky looks, with a low insurance rating and good safety features, says James Ruppert

Helena Wojnowska wants to know the best - which in her maternal eyes means the safest - car to buy her son who is studying at university. She promised it to him for his 18th birthday and on his receiving four A-levels (all grade As) Helena feels duty bound to stick to that promise, but finds the choice very confusing. She only wants a small car and can stretch her budget up to £8,000, maybe £9,000.

Every concerned parent is desperate to know which is the best car to buy for their offspring, but often it isn't always the best car that gets bought, it is the cheapest to insure. Ideally, youngsters need a big, strong, slow car to protect them against the minor knocks and scrapes that will inevitably happen in the first few years. An old BMW 5 series or Mercedes 190 would be ideal, but is utterly uninsurable. Often it is a flimsy 15-year-old supermini that gets bought with no safety features but a very low insurance rating.

Another problem with old cars is that they are more likely to break down. Now, the last thing that you want to do is be blamed for leaving your child stranded in the middle of nowhere with a broken car. Ideally, then, parents should aim to buy as new as possible, and luckily Helena has a generous budget. However, because of the insurance situation she needs to put plenty aside for the annual premium while her son builds up a no-claims bonus.

The car need not be new, but it does need a low insurance grouping to make sense. I also refer Helena to the Marmalade car club for young drivers ( www.marmaladebenefits.co.uk), which this newspaper wrote about recently, where a brand new Fiat is offered with a low nine-month insurance policy.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

What Helena needs to buy is a modern supermini with a low insurance rating, and although a Ford Fiesta would be a good idea, the Vauxhall Corsa from 2000 to 2004 is a very good idea. A 1.0 Club three-door is only group 1 for insurance, and is suitably slow and cheap to run. It is also reasonably safe, with a driver's airbag and front seatbelts with pretensioners.

That 1.0 litre engine should manage just over 50mpg, which will help a student budget go that little bit further. The light steering means that driving it and parking it could not be easier. The Corsa is a small car, but that should not bother Helena too much as ideally her son should be driving himself around and not giving lifts to lots of rowdy students. There are plenty of large door bins and cubby holes for all those things that a student needs to carry around.

On the motorway and when Helena's son is popping home, the Corsa is only adequate, being a bit noisy and unrefined, but that is hardly important. What is crucial is the £3,500 asking price for a year 2000 example with a reasonable 40,000 miles on the clock, which isn't so new that it will make Helena's son feel nervous.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

Most students want to be very cool and funky, which means that Helena's son could be the centre of attention with a Smart. The great thing about it is that mum needn't worry about her son being bullied into taking four drunken mates on a pub crawl. It seats just two people in a high degree of safety.

There are clever electronic devices such as electronic traction control and electronic stability control to stop it falling over. At the front are full-size driver and passenger airbags, ABS brakes, Tridion safety cell-reinforced steel frame and integrated side-impact struts, which are all very reassuring. The Smart is also cheap to run as the 600cc turbo Mercedes engine returns around 60mpg.

Although the latest Smart Pure from 2004 is group 1 insurance, the earlier versions are group 3 and 4, so Helena needs to be aware of this. The basic Pure will be more than adequate, and prices for a 2004 example with 10,000 miles would be around £4,500. Early left-hand drive examples from 2001 are below £3,000 even if they are immaculate. Better for Helena's son to stick to a right-hand drive layout.

www.jamesruppert.com

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