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AAA's top picks for commuter vehicles

March 23, 2010 |  2:08 pm

Are you stuck in traffic on a long commute with a car that sucks gas more quickly than a teenager can drain a milkshake?

Mindful of poor souls like yourself, and the fact that the average motorist spends about 41 minutes a day traveling about 22.5 miles round trip to and from work, the American Automobile Assn. on Tuesday released its top Civic vehicle picks for commuters. (Memo to AAA: Southern California drivers wish their commutes were "average.")

Having the right vehicle for long drives saves money, reduces pollution and is key to staying safe and comfortable during many hours on the road, the auto club said. It evaluated vehicles on practicality, safety, comfort, fuel efficiency and affordability to make its selections.

The picks, and what AAA says about the vehicles follow:

  • Honda Insight: This car is among the ultimate in gasoline fuel economy while being reasonably comfortable for the driver and front-seat passenger. It's also less costly and more fun to drive than some of its hybrid competitors.
  • Ford Fusion: Four-cylinder versions offer an appealing combination of power, riding comfort and handling competence. The Hybrid offers even more economy, but the fuel savings come with a major bump in the purchase price.
  • Volkswagen Jetta TDI: Everything that you ever hated about diesels has been exorcised in this latest version of the Volkswagen diesel engine. It is every bit as economical as the most miserly hybrids. It also is great fun to drive.
  • Hyundai Elantra: The new Blue edition is good for 35 miles per gallon. This fourth generation Elantra also is reasonably accommodating for a driver and three passengers with the interior nicely done. The 10-year/100,000-mile warranty lets you keep this car in the daily commuting grind for years.
  • Subaru Legacy/Outback: These new models with their horizontally opposed four-cylinder engines perform very well, and with their redesign for 2010, they now offer much better fuel economy and enhanced rear seat legroom.
  • Honda Civic: Affordable, dependable, economical and comfortable, the Civic is one of the better performing compacts for a wide range of uses, including commuting. For drivers who want to enjoy the trip even more, the 197-horsepower Si sedan deserves a careful look.
  • Chevrolet Malibu: Stylish inside and out, the Malibu also is a competent performer on the road. Four-cylinder models offer more than enough power for the daily commute and promise decent fuel economy. The passenger cabin is nicely finished and roomy, both in the front and rear, making it a good choice for carpooling.
  • Honda Accord: Good for the commute and good for family transportation, the Accord is roomy, solid and economical when equipped with the four-cylinder engine.
  • Mazda3: The body for 2010 may not be to everyone's taste, but there is no arguing with its crisp handling and above average power for the compact field. Fuel economy also is good. The ride can be a little flinty, so commuters facing long stretches of neglected urban highways may want to look elsewhere.

If you want a bit more in luxury and styling, the auto club suggested:

  • BMW 3-Series: The first sports sedan remains the best by many measures. What more enjoyable way to get to work and then return home? The engines are impressive for their power and refinement, the handling is top notch and the build quality is excellent, as would be expected for the price.
  • Mini Cooper: A premium subcompact, the Mini is both sporty and economical with fuel. Few cars are as much fun to drive. Commuters will be able to take one passenger only and the purchase price is higher than you might expect, based on size alone. However, few cars are as enjoyable on the road or offer as many safety features.
  • Chevrolet Corvette: Who says the drive to work has to be boring? The Corvette is anything but, and when driven appropriately, it can even return near-compact car fuel economy of around 26 mpg on the highway.
  • Buick Enclave: Handling the commute for up to eight people, the Enclave combines an exceptionally quiet ride with competent handling and surprising room in all three rows. It makes for a smart choice for those seeking a large family vehicle on the weekends.
  • Mercedes-Benz GL: Roomy seating for seven, unexcelled refinement, all-wheel drive and the option of a surprisingly economical (for the vehicle size) diesel engine make this a highly desirable commuter for multi-adult carpools.
  • Volkswagen GTI: Sporty, fun to drive and able to return mid- to upper-20 mpg fuel economy results with the 200-horsepower turbocharged engine, the GTI is full of surprises. Even the rear seat is good for two adults and the cargo area is surprisingly roomy. Four workers can easily store large laptop carrying briefcases in the rear and then be quite comfortable for the ride to and from work.
-- Jerry Hirsch

Photo: Honda Civic.