2007 Mini Cooper S convertible
David Zalubowski  /  AP file
In the "fun but frugal" category, the British-made, BMW-designed Mini Cooper is a born commuter with its pint size, affordable price, go-kart handling and spacious (for two) cabin.
updated 10/15/2007 8:41:50 PM ET 2007-10-16T00:41:50

From Tokyo to Los Angeles, one word strikes fear into the most seasoned office worker, the most savvy CEO: Commuting.

Gridlock. Exhaust fumes. Boiling frustration. Wherever cars proliferate, it's all part of the daily slog endured by commuters.

With the nation's population topping 300 million, more people and more cars are commuting longer distances from far-flung suburbs and exurbs. Americans spent 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2005, according to the latest study by the Texas Transportation Institute, wasting 2.9 billion gallons of gas. U.S. census data show the nation's average daily commute time approaching 25 minutes, with more drivers facing "extreme" commutes of 90 minutes or more.

The latest discouraging phenomenon is "commuter creep," with workers leaving before dawn to beat traffic. In 2000, one in nine drivers was behind the wheel by 6 a.m. Last year it was one in eight, enough to put 2.7 million more commuters on the early road, for a bleary-eyed total of 15 million.

But while no car yet can save you from a five-mile back-up, the right car can help ease the pain of commuting.

The best commuter cars are comfortable, smooth-riding and spacious inside relative to their exterior footprint. They're maneuverable, safe and fuel-efficient. Based on those criteria, we've tested leading models in a variety of classes to select the best of the breed.

Yet one size does not fit all. Budget compacts are obvious contenders. Many families, however — especially those who rely on a single car — demand something bigger and better-equipped, perhaps even luxurious.

With real-world needs in mind, we looked for commuters that addressed them: First, ultra-affordable rides that deliver maximum utility for the buck. Fortunately, this field is nothing like the cramped, unreliable econo-boxes of old. Today, $15,000 and change will buy a Honda Fit, a roomy, high-mileage subcompact that drives and feels like a much more expensive car.

Next, a fun-but-frugal group ups the style, features and performance without sacrificing economy. The Nissan Altima sedan, which combines serious curb appeal and sporty handling with a generous interior and an EPA-rated 31 highway mpg, fits that description perfectly.

An All-Economy team is led by hybrids, including the Toyota Prius, that deliver their best mileage gains in the city and in heavy traffic that commuters know all too well.

On the luxury front, some models are ideal for keeping the honking, blaring world at bay while still delivering power, amenities and class-leading mileage. When the traffic ahead finally clears, the BMW 335i convertible is a rolling invitation to punch the gas, let down your hair and leave the workday world behind.

Finally, with more than 11 percent of commuters sharing the ride to work, we've chosen a pair of modern, seven- or eight-passenger crossover SUVs for the socially responsible, carpooling crowd.

Both the Mercedes GL-Class and General Motors' (nyse: GM - news - people ) latest crossovers are the rare vehicles in their sales categories whose third-row seats can accommodate six-foot-plus adults. During extensive testing, both models forged convincing arguments as class leaders for packaging, refinement and overall performance.

Remember, if you're carting five or more adults in an SUV or minivan, you'd have to convoy in two conventional cars to chauffeur the same number of passengers. Therefore, the carpooling GMC Acadia, at 24 highway mpg, will use less fuel than a pair of Toyota Prius hybrids that deliver 45 mpg on the highway under the revised, more realistic EPA ratings for all 2008 models.

Whether small, medium or large, these cars are equivalent to a quart-sized espresso: An eye-opening way to start the working day.

© 2012 Forbes.com


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