Sometimes the reality of what a car needs to do isn’t as interesting as what we want it to do. It’s easy to imagine endless camping trips or blasts down twisty roads when buying a car, but most of those miles will probably be accumulated in daily commuting. The best commuter cars make that daily grind as stress free as possible with a smooth ride and easy to use tech, but still offer something extra for when you’re not on the way to and from work. Here are our top picks:
Why you should buy this: It’s comfortable, fuel efficient, and fun.
Who’s it for: People who spend a lot of time in their cars.
How much will it cost: $20,680+ (sedan)
Why we picked the Honda Civic:
Honda’s evergreen compact car has everything you could want in a commuter vehicle. It’s affordable, has a good reputation for reliability, and you won’t have to drain you savings account to fill its tank. But Honda also gives you a little something extra.
The Civic is one of the best driving compact cars around. The steering and suspension are precise and quick to react to driver inputs. The optional 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s 174 horsepower is more than enough to exploit gaps in traffic. But when you can’t go fast, the Civic still impresses with a comfortable ride and quiet cabin that will make long commutes less of an ordeal.
Honda also paid attention to the details when designing the Civic’s cockpit. The seats feel good, and controls are placed within easy reach of the driver. An available 7.0-inch touchscreen is teamed with a volume knob and hard buttons for important menus, making it easier to use without getting distracted. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available as well.
Honda offers plenty of choices, too. You can have a Civic sedan, coupe, or hatchback. If the standard version isn’t sporty enough for you, Honda offers Si versions of the sedan and coupe, and the 306-hp Civic Type R hatchback.
Read our 2019 Honda Civic sedan review
The best commuter SUV
Why you should buy this: It has the positives of an SUV, without the negatives.
Who’s it for: Weekend warriors.
How much will it cost: $26,970+
Why we picked the Toyota RAV4: Many buyers want the taller driving position, extra cargo space, and all-wheel drive traction of an SUV, but don’t want to deal with bad gas mileage and truck-like handling. That’s exactly what the Toyota RAV4 offers.
In everyday driving, the RAV4 feels like a slightly taller car. Toyota even offers a hybrid model rated at 40 mpg combined. The non-hybrid option is a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which makes 203 hp – impressive considering this engine lacks a turbocharger. While Toyota does offer a TRD Off-Road model with upgraded suspension and tires, the RAV4 is best kept on the pavement.
The interior is functional, with chunky knobs and buttons that are easy to find at a glance, and also give the cabin a unique style. For the 2020 model year, the RAV4 is finally available with Android Auto, alongside the previously-available Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility.
Read our 2019 Toyota RAV4 review
The best commuter electric car
Why you should buy this: It’s better for the environment, and your wallet.
Who’s it for: Eco warriors.
How much will it cost: $30,885+
Why we picked the Nissan Leaf: Electric cars are inherently good commuter cars. The distance of the average commute won’t instill range anxiety – especially if your workplace has charging stations. Stop and go traffic allows you to make good use of regenerative braking and get back some energy while decelerating. Plus, you can save the environment while saving money on fuel.
The Nissan Leaf is a good value among electric cars. The Leaf offers more than a Chevrolet Bolt EV or Hyundai Kona Electric. The Nissan’s base price also undercuts those cars. Granted, that only buys a 40-kilowatt-hour battery pack with 150 miles, but that should be more than adequate for daily commuting, provided you can charge at night. Nissan also offers a Leaf Plus model with a 62-kWh battery pack and up to 226 miles of range.
Nissan also makes the transition to an electric car easy. The Leaf’s e-Pedal system combines regenerative and mechanical braking, allowing you to maximize regeneration without guesswork. Aside from its whisper-quiet electric powertrain, the Leaf also feels like any other car, not a futuristic science project. The infotainment system is a bit of a letdown, but at least you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Read our 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus review
The best commuter sports car
Why you should buy this: You only live once.
Who’s it for: People who like to have fun.
How much will it cost: $28,410+
Why we picked the Ford Mustang: Not every commuter car needs to be practical. If you want something fun to drive on the weekend, and can live with compromises when it comes to backseat and trunk space, the Ford Mustang can pull double duty as weekday commuter and weekend toy.
It may not be the best choice for carpooling, but the Mustang offers enough space that you won’t feel cramped, as in most traditional two-seat sports cars. Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system is easy to use (a new Sync 4 system is on the way), and comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Ford also offers a nifty reconfigurable digital instrument cluster as an optional extra.
If gas mileage is a priority, the base 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder engine returns 25 mpg combined, and still makes 310 hp. Things escalate quickly from there. A performance package for the EcoBoost bumps output to 330 hp. Or you can upgrade to a 5.0-liter V8 in the GT, 5.2-liter V8 in the Shelby GT350, or a supercharged version of that engine in the Shelby GT500. Granted, the 760-hp GT500 might be a bit too extreme for daily use.
Read our 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost HPP first drive review
BMW 3 Series
The best commuter luxury car
Why you should buy this: It’s a step above the average car, and it’s full of tech.
Who’s it for: People who want something a little bit extra.
How much will it cost: $41,745+
Why we picked the BMW 3 Series: The current-generation BMW 3 Series is a bit softer than its predecessors, but that makes it a perfect commuter car. The 3 Series was long considered the greatest sports sedan, but now BMW has mixed in a little more luxury as well.
The 3 Series still has its old magic. The Bimmer has quick reflexes and silky smooth engines (either inline-four or inline-six, with mandatory turbocharging). But it also keeps you isolated from bumps and road noise like a proper luxury car. Enthusiasts may bemoan a loss of sharpness compared to previous generations, but that won’t matter if most your driving consists of going back and forth to the office.
The 3 Series is BMW’s entry-level sedan, and the past that’s shown in the quality of the interior. That’s not an issue with today’s 3 Series, which feels much closer to the larger 5 Series on the inside. BMW also offers a lot of tech, including an available 10.25-inch infotainment screen, 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, and a digital assistant that works a bit like Amazon Alexa.
Read our 2020 BMW 3 Series first drive review
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive scrutinizing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.
Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks when applicable.
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