‘Safe and ugly’ is the best choice for teen’s first car

Dear Car Talk:

My wife and I are at odds over what vehicle to get our 16-year-old daughter. I am currently driving a 10-year-old Mercedes-Benz E350 with 81,000 miles and am interested in moving up to possibly Tesla’s model S. I love the E350 and have maintained it faithfully, and think it would be a good, safe car for a teen girl. Yes, I know I spoil her terribly, but from a practical point of view, what’s wrong with this idea?

My wife has made it VERY clear that under no circumstances will our daughter be getting a Mercedes. I think she is relating back to her own days in high school where she got a beater VW. Should I just sell it and buy our daughter something else, or let her drive my old ride? – Michael

RAY: Well, if she goes to Beverly Hills High School, then you can give her the Mercedes, Michael. In fact, you might have to trade it in and get her an S-Class.

You’re right that it’s certainly a safe vehicle, and that’s the top priority for teen drivers. And the fact that you know the car, and have kept it well-maintained increases the chances she won’t get stranded in it. But I fear that everyone at her high school will hate her. Especially the teachers, who are all driving 16-year-old Hyundais. And your wife does have a good point about leaving her something to aspire to in life. If she starts out driving a Mercedes, what incentive does she have to lie, cheat, steal and inside-trade later in life to get one?

In my opinion, the best cars for teenagers are very safe, and very ugly. You want something that will protect her when she has her first accident (when, not if). But you also want to give her some reason to apply herself, and work for a better future. So it’s a tough call here, Michael. The car itself, the Mercedes, will certainly protect her. But do you want to burden her with being “the kid the who drives a Mercedes”?

Here’s my solution: Give her the Mercedes, but first, take a sledgehammer and put at least one big dent on each side. Then drive it into the garage, making sure you scrape the passenger side against the garage door opening for at least 6 feet. Then put two “Ask Me About My Grandchildren” bumper stickers on the back. Then give her the keys.

Use of aluminum has not increased cost of F-150 repairs

Dear Car Talk:

When Ford introduced its new F-150 with aluminum body parts, I heard some complaints that some body shops might not be able to repair them, and those that did might charge more than if the truck were a normal steel body version. What’s the evidence so far? Anybody have any cost or other problems getting their aluminum-body F-150’s dents and body damage repaired? – George

RAY: Ford’s “Reynolds Wrap Edition” aluminum-heavy F-150 arrived in 2015 with a lot of promise. The use of aluminum body panels instead of steel made the new truck much lighter, which improved mileage, and promised “No rust. Ever.” But a big concern was the cost of repairs, particularly the cost of replacing body panels.

If you have a little dent, pretty much any body shop can bang it out, fill it with Bondo and repaint it for you. But when you have to replace full panels, welding aluminum is a lot different than welding steel. To weld aluminum, body shops need to purchase expensive, new equipment, and get special training to use it. And based on Father Guido Sarducci’s “law of supply-a and-a demand-a,” you’d figure that fewer competing body shops would lead to higher prices, right?

So here we are, a few years later, and how much have F-150 body repair costs gone up? Zero. We checked with IIHS (the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), which, as you might guess, carefully tracks insurance payouts. The organization’s latest report on the F-150, from April 2017, found that the cost of body repairs, compared to the 2014 F-150, has stayed the same.

How could this be, you ask? Well, a lot of it has to do with Ford. They were rightfully concerned that stories about higher repair costs could lead people to avoid F-150s and buy Chevys instead. So they took a bunch of proactive steps to make sure repair costs didn’t go up.

They offered discounted repair equipment to their dealerships, along with training. They lowered the price of the aluminum body parts, making many of them cheaper than comparable steel parts. And, they made the truck more modular. So if you bash the front-right corner of your new F-150 into a concrete pole in a parking garage, you might be able to replace just the affected section, rather than the whole front fender (which is how you’d fix the older, steel F-150).

Since some of this cost control is dependent on Ford keeping the prices of their aluminum parts low, keep in mind that this story could change over time. Although Ford does have a huge and continuing interest in avoiding headlines like “F-150 costs more to repair than competitors.” The F-150 is Ford’s best-selling vehicle, and any meaningful drop in sales would be a disaster for them.

So as long as there’s heavy competition to sell pickup trucks, and as long as the world’s supply of aluminum remains plentiful, there should be no major issues repairing F-150s. When you see a can of beer go up to $23, that’ll be your clue to start worrying, George.