The 10 Best Commuter Cars

  by Andrew Ganz

The 10 Best Commuter Cars

Statisticians point out that Americans are enduring longer commutes every year. On average, it takes us more than 25 minutes – each way – to get to work every day.

And since the bulk of American commuters drive into work today – whether alone or in a carpool – that's a lot of time to be cooped up inside of a car. More than 200 hours a year, on average. That's the cumulative equivalent of around 8.3 days sitting inside of a car commuting to or from the office every year.

Now that we've scared you with those facts, isn't it time to consider a new car for commuting? Keeping several key points in mind, we canvassed the entire industry to pick out 10 new cars that we think make great commuter cars. Presented in the following slides - in no particular order - are 10 vehicles we think meet all of the following criteria:

Value. Sure, you could opt for a cheap beater, but is that really a great way to spend 8-plus days of the year? You wouldn't choose to stay in a roach motel for 8 nights, would you? With that in mind, we looked at relatively inexpensive new cars – those under $30,000.

Fuel efficiency. Who wants to spend $100 in gas every week just getting to work? All of these cars are among the most fuel thrifty in their respective segments.

Comfort. If you're going to spend an hour a day behind the wheel of something, it ought to be comfortable. That means its interior needs to be well-designed, roomy and nicely appointed.

Fun. Everyone has a different definition of fun, so we looked at cars that will maximize smiles as much as possible. For some drivers, fun is passing gas stations and watching an mpg figure climb. For others, it's about steering precision and chassis balance. 

Some photos by Mark Elias and Andrew Ganz.

10. Mazda Mazda3

Though a new Mazda3 is just around the corner, the outgoing model is one heck of an under-appreciated car – especially since it now offers up to 40 mpg on the highway.

That's some of the best non-hybrid or diesel fuel economy you'll come across, but what makes Mazda3 even better is that it earns 40 mpg in its standard, highest-volume form – as a sedan with an automatic gearbox. Rivals often make buyers pay extra for a special fuel economy package, or they only achieve such lofty figures with a manual gearbox.

But 40 mpg only solidifies the Mazda3's place on this list – it's a brilliant-handling compact car, the kind of commuter runabout that will leave you grinning as you walk into the office. And rest assured that the Mazda3 will be smiling back at you when you head home for the night since, well, the current model is kind of goofy looking.

Best for: Curvy two lane back road commutes.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Mazda Mazda3.

9. Hyundai Veloster

Veloster's hunchback shape hides its most unique feature – a third “occasional use” door carved behind the passenger's door. The driver's door is slightly longer than the passenger's door to help Veloster avoid the awkward proportions of some cars that have come before with a three-door arrangement.

This practicality-enhancing feature vastly improves access to the back seat, which definitely makes Veloster the most usable coupe for young families.

Once junior has been dropped off at school or day care, mommy or daddy can enjoy the Veloster's taut chassis and flexible powertrain lineup. Even with the optional turbocharged engine, Veloster is rated at a solid 35 mpg on the highway.

Best for: Commuters who drop off a little one at pre-school before heading into work.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Hyundai Veloster.

8. Toyota Prius

If spending less money on fuel is your ultimate goal, the Toyota Prius is arguably the smartest choice in the industry. Sure, there are more costly vehicles that will wind up using a little less gas – the Prius Plug-In will get halfway to your office using only electric power, for instance.

But you'd probably have to commute from Baltimore to Outer Mongolia to pay off the difference since the standard Prius runs about $8,000 less.

If your commute is mostly on congested roads, you'll really appreciate the Prius' terrific 51 mpg rating since hybrids can run on electricity at slower speeds. We've heard of some Prius commuters averaging upwards of 75 mpg because of the type of stop-and-go driving they do. Hard to argue with that one.

Best for: Commuting into the LEED-certified office building where your eco-tourism non-profit meets ISO 14000 standards.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Toyota Prius.

6. Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

For years, diesel engines have been all the rage over the pond in Europe, but they've never made much headway in the U.S. In part, we can thank General Motors for that since its last foray into diesel-powered Oldsmobile cars back in the late '70s was a miserable failure. 

But, 35 years on, credit is due to GM for trying again. This time, we think they've succeeded. 

Plucking a powerful four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine from its European lineup, Chevrolet's new Cruze Turbo Diesel is rated at a Prius-rivaling 46 mpg on the highway. But unlike the Prius, the Cruze is a hoot to zip around in - its engine makes a mountain of low end torque (280 lb-ft., if you're counting), which helps it feel positively rapid when passing on the highway. 

Best for: Interstate commuters with big bladders.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel.

5. Subaru Impreza

In places like the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest and New England, Subarus seem to outnumber humans. And that's for a reason: They're robust, durable vehicles, and, aside from the sporty Subaru BRZ, they all come standard with a traction-enhancing all-wheel-drive system.

That might not be of much obvious benefit if you live in Phoenix (except during monsoon season), but there's not much that will stop a Subaru. 

We like the Impreza not because it's especially fun to drive, but because it ekes out an impressive 36 mpg on the highway according to the EPA. That's better than any other all-wheel-drive car.

Best for: Winter commutes.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Subaru Impreza.

4. Fiat 500

Who said that city cars had to be mindless boxes (cough, cough Toyota Yaris)? 

Remarkably well-equipped with features like Bluetooth and power windows at just $16,000, the Fiat 500 is more than just a good looker. It's actually a joy to drive, although you'll want to step up to the pricier turbocharged variants if it's power you're after.

But we're perfectly content with the 500 in its most honest and most basic form - hubcaps and all. 

Best for: City slickers pretending they're European.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Fiat 500.

3. Volkswagen Passat TDI

Volkswagen's midsize sedan was recently redesigned specifically for the North American market (and, admittedly, the Chinese market since, curiously, American and Chinese consumers have similar tastes). 

Though it's a little too milquetoast to really get our enthusiast juices flowing like Passats of yore, the latest model does have one trick up its sleeve that, at least for now, no other midsize sedan can boast: A 40 mpg-plus diesel engine, available at a reasonable price tag. 

Opt for the base manual gearbox and you'll net 43 mpg on the highway. The more commute-friendly automatic nets 40 mpg. Like the Cruze diesel mentioned earlier, the Passat excels at passing fuel stations - but it boasts a roomy back seat that your carpool mates will really appreciate.

Best for: Long carpool commutes.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Volkswagen Passat.

2. Chevrolet Spark

The smallest new car with two doors on each side, the Chevrolet Spark redefines subcompact motoring. At nearly 20 inches shorter than a "normal" subcompact five-door like the Chevrolet Sonic, the Spark sneaks into parking spots you never knew existed.

Yet unlike most little runabouts like the Scion iQ and the Smart Fortwo, the Spark imparts enough of a substantial feel that it is reasonably comfortable on the highway, too. We wouldn't buy one to drive from New York to Los Angeles, but if you're commuting within the urban confines of either of those mega metropolises, the Spark isn't a bad choice at all.

Moreover, Spark's particularly in tune with the needs of modern urban buyers - along with the bigger Sonic, it was the first car to offer Apple's Siri integration right from the factory. 

Best for: Urban technophiles.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Chevrolet Spark.

1. Nissan Leaf

America's most popular electric car is an obvious choice for many commuters. Capable of driving up to 75 miles on a single charge, it shouldn't have any problem tackling the typical round trip trek to work.

And if you have access to a charging station or even a standard household-style electrical outlet at work, you can top it off enough to run out to lunch or make a few detours on the way home. 

Nissan recently upgraded its Leaf to improve its range and, in response to tepid demand, it also lowered the EV's price tag. Now starting at a hair under $29,000 - and that's before any federal, state and local incentives you might qualify for - the Leaf is actually a pretty decent value. It's sized about like a typical compact car, which means it's a perfectly reasonable carpool commuter, too. 

Best for: Living a gasoline-free lifestyle.

Visit our Buying Guide to learn more about the Nissan Leaf.