Conquering rush-hour traffic
When replacing the Kia Optima with the new Kia K5 in the USA for the 2021 model year, Kia showed that it still believed in the sedan format. The sedan was a favorite among US buyers for decades, with generations of Americans plying the nation’s highways in their Chevy Impalas, Dodge Intrepids, and Ford Tauruses. These cars were a great compromise – they had way better fuel economy than the trucks and SUVs of their era for those road trips and they were easier to handle and park than a minivan on the daily commute.
But while brands such as Kia, Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda are still offering roomy mid-size sedans, GM and Ford are abandoning the segment in favor of crossover SUVs. But could a sedan still justify its existence as a daily driver on the commute from home to work and back? Is there still room for it on the market or is the sedan going the way its dwindling sales figures are suggesting – towards irrelevance and extinction? There are so many more types of car models out there today to consider, so the question is worth exploring.
The most important characteristics of a good commuter car can be summarized as follows:
- It should offer good gas mileage
- It should have comfortable seats
- It must have an automatic transmission
- It must be easy to see out of
- It should be reasonably compact and easy to handle and park
- It should offer good interior storage and cup holders
- It should offer decent in-car entertainment and a good audio system
The Best Commuter Cars
For obvious reasons of getting about in traffic and parking, a three-row, full-size SUV or a large luxury sedan would not qualify as a good commuter car, so we’ve summarized which vehicles do:
- Small cars. The cheapest of the cheap options, these small cars are good for commuting based purely on the miles per gallon they can get and for being cheap to run. These include bottom-rung cars such as the Mitsubishi Mirage and Chevrolet Spark. They don’t meet several of the above criteria, because they are not comfortable or refined, but they offer superb gas mileage in the region of 40 MPG and they are cheap to maintain and very easy to park and thread through traffic. They don’t serve a dual purpose and are a bit too small and underpowered for highway driving, but as cheap-as-dirt commuting fodder, they’ll do the job. If you need Car Mats for your small cars get best from here.
- Compact cars. The models in this class are quite extensive and include, among others, the Hyundai Accent and Elantra, Kia Rio and Forte, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, and Volkswagen Jetta. These cars are more expensive than small cars, but serve a dual purpose and are comfortable enough with enough cargo space and performance to take on longer trips, while still being compact enough to do the commuter job. As far as normal sedans are concerned, these are the best all-rounders.
- Subcompact crossover SUVs. Take our small-car class and jack it up with more adventurous styling and better ground clearance and you have the subcompact crossover SUV. Their increased height means you have a better view out and more interior space than a compact car, but they are still small, don’t have much power, and you can’t put adults on the back seat. They offer more advantages than a small car but don’t take up any more space on the road. Examples include the Kia Seltos, Hyundai Venue, and Ford EcoSport.
- Compact crossover SUVs. These are the best-selling cars in America and include perennial favorites such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Ford Escape. They offer everything subcompact crossovers offer, but in a larger format with more powerful engine choices and more space, so you can actually use them for almost everything. They offer the requisite high seating position, can take on dirt roads, and still offer good gas mileage, while taking up less space than a mid-size sedan.
- Not so much a variation on body styles than on drivetrain configurations, hybrids are available in most of the above classes and offer even better gas mileage that can often exceed 50 MPG. The cheaper, economy-minded models aren’t always great to drive and with limited power and sluggish continuously variable transmissions, some of them can be a bit laborious, but hybrids are designed for the city and beat all the gas cars of fuel consumption. Examples include the Toyota Prius and hybrid versions of the RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, and Honda CR-V. One step better is the plug-in hybrid, with a bigger battery and more powerful electric motor, allowing you tens of miles of EV-only driving. In terms of running costs, there is no better commuter car. If you live within a radius of your plug-in’s daily EV range, you can do your entire week’s commute on EV power and not use the gas engine at all. If you can charge at work during the day, you can double that distance. Examples include the Toyota Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime, Kia Niro, and Subaru Crosstrek.
- Still a quite expensive commuting solution in terms of MSRP, even the base model EV of every brand offering one is quite expensive. The Mini Cooper Electric might be only around $30,000, but that is quite a lot of money for an EV that can’t do a lot more than 100 miles on a charge and can, therefore, not be used out of town. The odd man out is, of course, the now-defunct Smart Electric Drive, whose microcar size makes it the best of all cars for slotting into tiny parking spots. Its 58 miles of range is fine for commuting, too. But since Smart has left the US, you’ll have to find a used one. The most well-known EVs are Teslas. The range of each Tesla model varies, but, for example, the Tesla model 3 has a range of 310 miles which will work best for long distance commuting.
It’s quite obvious that you should decide whether you want a car specifically designed for commuting that can’t really do much else, such as the smallest and cheapest mentioned above, or whether you want something with a dual-purpose role. If you don’t want to keep two cars, a compact crossover that can be used out of town and on bad roads cover more bases. Even better, a plug-in hybrid gives you zero-emission commuting during the week and a gas engine for weekend road trips – if the budget stretches that far.