The mean amount of time spent commuting by U.S. workers is 23.8 minutes, according to a 2009 report from the Census Bureau. At first glance, that doesn’t seem so bad. It’s enough time to hear the weather report, drink some coffee and listen to “Free Bird” on the radio. But that figure also signifies that the average U.S. worker is in a car for almost four hours a week. That’s 45 minutes longer than it takes to watch “Titanic.”
With that kind of time on the road a regular fixture in commuters’ lives, the car in which the travel takes place had better have certain attributes. It should be comfortable. It should go from zero to 20 and back to zero to 20 again, repeatedly, with no noticeable wear. And it should be nimble enough to negotiate the tight spaces that open and close in congested traffic.
Kelley Blue Book, the nation’s biggest car valuation company, provided CNBC.com with its list of 10 cars that are the best for commuting. Taking into account such factors as roominess, fuel efficiency and more, these cars were chosen for their ability to make life a little more bearable for commuters. We also added the insight of automotive experts at TotalCarScore.com and Edmunds.com, who told us how these cars hold up in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Read ahead to see Kelley Blue Book’s best cars for commuting.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 10 May 2012
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $18,950
When it comes to fuel economy, commuters know that their ideal vehicle isn’t the one that can tear up the highway at a treacherous speed. It’s the one that goes easy on fuel consumption, and the 2012 Toyota Prius C does precisely that.
“Commuting, particularly in urban areas, often means traveling in stop-and-go traffic,” said Karl Brauer, CEO and editor-in-chief of TotalCarScore.com, in an e-mail. “This is where the Prius C shines, sipping fuel at an earth-friendly 53 mpg in city driving.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $16,800
The typical commute may take less than half an hour, but many of them are anything but average. Everything from highway construction to slower cars in the left lane can make the journey longer than the motorist bargained for. With that in mind, the motorist’s car had better be comfortable.
“The Cruze proves how far Chevrolet has come in the small-car market, as it offers refined drivetrains and a roomy, comfortable cabin,” Brauer said. “It can also be ordered with a wide range of luxury options like leather, navigation and a nine-speaker audio system.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $27,700
With gas prices approaching $5 a gallon, fuel efficiency is a key concern for commuters. In that sense, it’s hard to improve on a car that uses no fuel whatsoever. The all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf requires not one drop of gas, but it can still reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour when fully charged. But what about cabin noise?
“If you've driven a hybrid, you know how silent they are in electric-only mode,” says Edmunds.com. “The 2012 Nissan Leaf cruises with this kind of serenity at all times, with only a vague high-pitched whine detectable under heavy throttle. Even the high-pitched noise the Leaf generates to alert pedestrians at low speeds is largely undetectable in the cabin.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $20,200
The Mini Cooper’s status as an iconic car has existed since its introduction in the 1960s. But while many cars get their iconic status at the expense of practicality, the 2012 Mini Cooper is both fuel-efficient and up to the challenges of negotiating tight traffic, without sacrificing style.
“It doesn't come around very often, but driving an eco-friendly car and enjoying the experience needn't be mutually exclusive,” says Edmunds.com. “The 2012 Mini Cooper is a prime example. It offers up an engaging drive and plenty of charm, all the while returning fuel mileage similar to what you'd get from a boring economy car.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $19,995
Many commuters cut costs and reduce traffic congestion by carpooling, and the spacious 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI is an ideal vehicle to do it in. “For commuters seeking a large cabin and stately ride quality the Passat TDI offers luxury-like accommodations within its plush cabin,” Brauer said.
“Add in the TDI's highly fuel-efficient engine (31 mpg city/43 highway) and the Passat could be the world's best carpool vehicle.
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $31,645
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is a hybrid vehicle and can get 35 miles out of its electric batteries and over 300 miles out of its gasoline back-up system. “The Volt is perfect for short, fuel-free daily commutes while still accommodating long haul duty when necessary,” Brauer says.
Despite what it saves on fuel, the Volt isn’t cheap. “Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, a base Volt will still cost about $32,500 — and that's without the home-charging station, which can be useful for a plug-in hybrid like the Volt,” says Edmunds.com.
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $15,755
For years, the Honda Civic has had a reputation for comfort and reliability. The 2012 model continues this proud tradition, but according to Edmunds.com, there are a couple of glitches.
“The automatic transmission's propensity to upshift early can be annoying,” the website says. “Wind noise is also a problem with the Civic, as it's noticeably louder than its competitors. This makes the Civic seem less refined on lengthy highway trips, despite one of the most comfortable and composed rides in the class.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $25,235
Kelley Blue Book’s only 2013 entry in the best car for commuters list is the Chevrolet Malibu Eco. It handles the open highway well, although this is less of an issue to commuters than fuel efficiency or comfort. But according to Brauer, the Eco delivers both.
”The all-new Malibu Eco has a roomy interior and an appealing exterior style that effectively slips through the air,” he says. “The slippery shape works with GM's eAssist light hybrid drivetrain to deliver up to 37 miles per gallon and up to 580 miles on a tank of gas.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $15,995
Described as “sleek and stylish” by Kelley Blue Book, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra comes with enough features to make commutes a little less grueling. “Even the low-priced base model comes with USB/iPod connectivity and a six-speaker audio system for enjoying your favorite music mix while commuting,” Brauer says. Options like heated seats, navigation and leather are also available.
Brauer calls the Elantra “one of the best values in the compact car category,” and Edmunds.com had kinds words for it as well, saying that the car’s “balance between ride and handling is one of the best in the segment.”
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price: $22,585
Some car buyers may think they have to choose between comfort and low price when making a purchase. The 2012 Buick Verano takes this conventional wisdom and dashes it.
“Buick's Verano delivers a luxurious and quiet ride while including standard features like remote start, Bluetooth, USB/iPod connectivity and a touchscreen display,” Brauer says. “This makes it an excellent value at its low starting price.”