Owning a car brings tremendous freedom and responsibility. But it also brings significant expenses, such as the purchase, maintenance, repairs, insurance, and fuel. Our advice can supercharge your car buying as you get ready for this big, exciting step. And remember, because a key element of driving includes sharing the road responsibly, see our guide to teen driving safety.

What can you afford?
Establishing a reasonable budget is critical. The money you have available for a down payment and potential for making monthly installments on a loan will determine your car choices. (See our picks for best cars for teens.)

As a young driver, you are probably budgeting for college or other educational pursuits, so it is important to work with your parents to set a realistic target. In doing so, consider whether this is a car just to see you through high school or whether it will be your traveling companion through college. That distinction will determine how new and reliable the car must be.

View Slideshow:  Best used cars for teens

No question, the best way to save money is to buy used. A new car loses almost half its value in the first five years. The smart money is to let someone else take the depreciation hit, and instead purchase a car that is a few years old, yet still has contemporary safety features and many reliable years ahead of it. And by purchasing used, you can buy more car, meaning you could afford, say, a midsized sedan rather than a tiny econobox.

As a teenager, financing will be a challenge. Lenders are typically looking for adults with a good credit score, steady employment history, and financial assets, such as a five-figure bank account or a house. In most cases, that will mean a parent will have to act as a co-signer or even take the loan in their own name.

A loan is a business agreement based on a lender charging interest for you to borrow money. The lower the interest rate and shorter the loan period, the less extra you have to pay in finance charges. The best solution may be to borrow from a family member, repaying them a fair interest rate that they would have seen from their savings account. That would save paperwork, keep the money in the family, and hopefully allow payment flexibility.

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Do your homework
With a budget in mind, now comes the fun part: creating a short list of target vehicles. Focus on practical choices — cars that will minimize ownership costs and suit your needs for the next few years.

To right-size your costs, resist the temptation to target sporty, luxury, or large vehicles. Such models would probably lead to your college fund being tapped to cover insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs. Instead, look to small sedans and hatchbacks from mainstream brands, or even better, midsized sedans.

It can be tempting to lust after a high-horsepower car or one with the latest-and-greatest high-tech features, but be practical. Money may be made from trees, but it sure doesn't grow on them. The insurance company will penalize a young driver in a sporty car; big engines cost more to fuel and maintain; and gee-whiz features tend to carry reliability risks. Plus, financed new cars will command higher insurance premiums to cover collision protection. It may not be the most fun advice, but simple is best.

To reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle, identify models with a good reliability record before you begin shopping. Consumer Reports collects data on more than a million cars a year to present reliability information covering the past decade. Such data can point you to cars that have been shown to hold up well over time. Reliability is a key factor, as it speaks to potential costs and inconvenience.

Read professional and owner reviews of the cars you're considering. Balance the different perspectives against your preferences, and use the feedback to highlight aspects that warrant closer attention. For instance, complaints about the seat comfort or ride quality can be evaluated on a test drive. Your opinions may differ from those held by others. And ultimately, it is you who will live with the car.