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Work sucks, but the drive to it doesn’t have to

Need something efficient and reliable to get from point A to point B? These no-hassle vehicles will get the job done comfortably.
Image: Mini Cooper Clubman
Small but mighty ... roomy. The Mini Cooper Clubman has more headroom and legroom than any car on the list.Mini
/ Source: Forbes

Need something efficient and reliable to get from point A to point B? These no-hassle vehicles will get the job done comfortably.

As Toyota executives sort through U.S. congressional committee hearings and an 8-million-vehicle recall, the 1.8 million Americans who bought Toyotas last year are undoubtedly doing some serious thinking about just how safe their daily commutes are. They have good reason for concern.

"Quite frankly I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor, told the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February. "Toyota's priority has traditionally been the following: first, safety; second, quality; and third, volume. These priorities became confused."

Those who bought the $26,400 Toyota Camry Hybrid, however, probably needn't worry. While the Camrys made between 2007 and 2010 have been recalled for sticky accelerator pedals, most of the hybrid versions were not. Toyota says 22 specific Camry Hybrid vehicles were equipped with the faulty CTS accelerator pedal and should be fixed. But all other Camry Hybrids have a differently designed accelerator pedal produced by a different supplier — and are not involved in the recall.

Toyota's hybrids aren't the only ones offering exceptional quality to daily drivers. The Ford Fusion Hybrid and twin Mercury Milan Hybrid also made the cut. In fact those cars illustrate the main finding on our commuter list: Low- to mid-priced vehicles using hybrid or diesel power in four-cylinder engines are the best bets for drivers looking simply to get from A to B without a lot of distraction in between.

To compile our list of the best cars for commuters, we started with all 2010 new vehicles on sale in the United States, paring down the group by selecting only those labeled by Consumer Reports as "Recommended Picks" this year. Recommended Picks are models that have average or better predicted reliability and that meet Consumer Reports' safety standards; they also had to have performed well in accelerating, braking, handling, comfort and other user-oriented tests. It's worth noting that the recalled Toyotas on our list passed these tests.

Then we combined the highway miles per gallon for each vehicle with their front legroom and front headroom measurements, assigning one point for each mile per gallon and one point for each inch of space, for a total score. Of those finalists, the 10 vehicles with the best combination of highway fuel efficiency, legroom and headroom made our list.

We didn't put any price limit on the automotive contenders, since there are cars at any price point that can be great on a morning commute, but interestingly all of our finalists cost well under $30,000, and all the cars on the list without the added price of hybrid technology cost under $23,000.

The reason for that skew toward lower retail pricing is likely the emphasis we placed on fuel efficiency — most luxury sedans and crossovers weigh more than their less-glamorous counterparts, which decreases their average mpg. The hybrids, though heavier and more expensive than their conventional brethren, still achieved good enough gas mileage and reliability scores to make the list.

Several finalists — the $19,500 MINI Cooper and $21,150 MINI Cooper Clubman, among others — are considered premium but landed in the top 10 by virtue of their generous cabin room (the Clubman has the second-most headroom and legroom on our list; the Cooper beats the Honda Civic and Ford Fusion in the same measurements) and substantial fuel efficiency.

The MINI Coopers illustrate another point: Commuter cars don't necessarily have to be big. A full 76 percent of commuters drive to work alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The key is to have enough headroom and legroom for a long commute: The national average commute is more than 25 minutes each way and as much as 31 minutes in New York state, the highest in the country. More than 3.4 million workers commute more than 90 minutes each way every day.

In short: Good commuter cars should be reliable, safe and durable. And of course they need to have good fuel efficiency on the highway — the average highway efficiency of the cars on our list is 42.4 mpg.

The other vehicles on our list show the importance of a time-tested fuel that has yet to convert the typical weekday driver in America: diesel.

According to the automotive research and analysis company R.L. Polk & Co., 40 percent of the cars in Europe are powered by diesel engines, most of which get up to 60 mpg. In the U.S. their presence is less than 2 percent even though their fuel efficiency is routinely 40 percent better than that of gasoline engines.

Besides their enviable efficiency (42 mpg and 47 mpg on the highway, respectively, after Consumer Reports tests), the $22,254 Volkswagen Golf TDI and $22,830 Volkswagen Jetta TDI offer features that make a commute more enjoyable — touch-screen navigation (in the Jetta), satellite radio and premium sound system with eight speakers, built-in MP3/WMA-capable six-CD changer complete with media device interface.

And Consumer Reports, in its write-up of the Volkswagen TDI technology, said the turbocharged diesels deliver performance comparable to a gas engine without the smell and noise of older diesels. The review said the new exhaust-system treatments, along with new ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, make the TDIs clean.

Indeed even Chris Royle, the director of global product strategy at R.L. Polk, says the next car he buys will run on diesel fuel.

It'll be a welcome change for his wallet, no doubt: Royle commutes 86 miles each day.