Car Guides

What’s a good vehicle for my family’s young drivers?

John Paul, AAA Northeast's Car Doctor, answers a question from a reader looking for a safe vehicle for his kids.

The 2017 Subaru Outback.
The 2017 Subaru Outback. Subaru

Q. I have recently been car shopping for a four or five-year old sedan for my kids to use. Do you have any suggestions on what I should be looking for? I want to keep in the $10-$15,000 range and of course want something safe for year-round use. Any suggestions? 

A. I would start with trying to find a vehicle with as much safety technology as you can afford. Even though some advanced driver assistance systems are not perfect, some are quite helpful. Blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert, and automatic emergency braking can help minimize the possibility of a crash. Larger vehicles typically do better in a crash than compact cars, and all-wheel-drive can be safer in slippery weather. The Toyota Highlander, Subaru Outback, and Ford Edge can all be good choices. Recently Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety put together a list of safe reliable vehicles under $20,000. After reviewing this list, I would say this is a great starting place for anyone looking for a good used vehicle.

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Q. My husband drives a 15-year-old Hyundai Sonata with approximately 68,000 miles. During a recent oil change appointment, the mechanic suggested he might want to consider replacing the tires. The tread is great — we used a quarter to check the tread depth — but the sidewalls are cracking and drying out. The mechanic didn’t try to push me on buying tires, and the car passed inspection. What is your professional opinion? Should the tires be changed? 

A. The typical life of a tire is 6-10 years. At 15 years old, it is time for new tires. The 15-year-old tires are more prone to failure from potholes and heat. Flat tires never happen at convenient times. Replacing the tires now will keep you safer.  

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Q. Recently, while driving at highway speeds in my Ford pick-up, I heard a very loud noise from the rear of the vehicle. The passenger side rear window shattered and small fragments covered the seat. Fortunately, there were no passengers aboard. The police, (I thought I’d been shot at), the glass shop, and the Ford dealer had no explanations for this problem. It was only about 75 degrees at the time. Do you have any idea why this occurred?

A. Glass can shatter from stress (the body flexes), poor installation, defective products, and of course, impact. The interesting thing about tempered glass is that even though it is much stronger than regular glass (and safer), it has a memory, and if something hit it once, over time that nick may cause a fracture and cause the glass to burst into tiny pieces. Years ago, some Scion vehicles would suddenly have the sunroof shatter — those seemed to be related to stress placed on the glass panel. I have looked for tech bulletins and didn’t find any. As a minimum you should report the issue to NHTSA (www.safercar.gov ) so it is on record. 

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Q. I have a six-year-old Toyota RAV-4, and in older cars I have always had the transmission fluid changed every five years. I went to my mechanic and he said the transmission is sealed and the fluid can’t be changed. Why would a car manufacturer do something like this? The car has no dipstick and no drain plug. I would like to know if I drill a hole in the pan, drain the fluid, and measure the fluid coming from it, can I put another hole in the top of the pan and put transmission fluid in?

A. Your Toyota, like many vehicles these days, does not have a conventional dipstick, making checking the fluid difficult. The fluid can still be checked and changed (it does have a drain), and can be refilled. The process is a bit tedious, but it can be accomplished. As for changing the fluid, it may not actually be necessary. According to Toyota’s “normal” service table there is no need to change the fluid. Of course, if you use your RAV-4 for towing a small boat or for a ride hailing service like Uber or Lyft, then you should follow the “severe” maintenance schedule and the fluid should be changed at 60,000 miles.

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John Paul is AAA Northeast’s Car Doctor. He has over 40 years of experience in the automotive business and is an ASE-certified master technician. E-mail your car question to [email protected]. Listen to Car Doctor on the radio at 10 a.m. every Saturday on 104.9 FM or online at northshore1049.com.

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