What are the best cars for commuting?

John Aaron, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Commutes in the D.C. area are among the longest in the country. Combine commutes with the region’s unpredictable drivers, stretches of unforgiving pavement and painfully high gas prices, and that makes selecting the right car all the more important.

CNBC has come out with its list of best cars for commutes. The report uses several factors including roominess and fuel efficiency.

WTOP had experts weigh in on the selections.

The most basic cars on the list are the Chevrolet Cruze ($16,800), the Honda Civic ($15,755) and the Hyundai Elantra ($15,995).

Mark Phelan, auto critic for the Detroit Free Press, likes both the Cruze and the Elantra because of their 40-plus miles-per-gallon highway fuel economy, which he says seemed “almost like science fiction” just two or three years ago.

Phelan prefers the Cruze and Elantra to the Civic, which is slightly less fuel efficient. But he says there’s not a bad choice in the group.

Ed Hellwig, editor at Edmunds.com, singled out the Elantra for its utilitarian approach.

“It just has a good, high-tech, four-cylinder engine that delivers solid mileage numbers, and it has all the features most people would expect,” Hellwig says.

“It’s about the size people would expect for a commuter car. Most people would be comfortable in it.”

If those cars are too basic, a pair of upscale compacts also made the list.

The Mini Cooper ($20,200) is “an enthusiast’s car that’s fun to live with,” says Phelan.

The Buick Verano ($22,585) is based on the more humble Cruze, but has enough improvements to justify the nearly $6,000 price difference.

“It’s as quiet as a tomb. Quiet interiors are something Buicks have kind of hung their hat on, and they’ve definitely succeeded with this car,” Phelan says.

Hellwig also says he, “can’t think of any feature people would want and not get in a Verano.”

Several cars that use electric power were included. But cars with more exotic technology, such as the Nissan Leaf ($27,700) and Chevrolet Volt ($31,645), only save owners money in rare circumstances because of their high initial cost.

Phelan says the Volt was his favorite car of the bunch because of its revolutionary technology. But he also says, “Nobody should buy a Volt or a Leaf in the expectation that it’s going to pay for itself in the first four or five, even six or seven years.”

Phelan adds that the all-electric Leaf could be a viable option for someone with a very predictable driving pattern, since it has about a 70-mile cruising range before needing a long time to recharge.

Even less expensive hybrids on the list, such as the Toyota Prius C ($18,950), take three to five years to recover the expense. Phelan calls the Prius C “really, really small” and prefers the conventional Prius hatchback.

A new kind of hybrid, the Chevrolet Malibu Eco ($25,235), tries to lessen the price premium by using a hybrid-lite mindset. Phelan says he’s glad the unique car, which GM isn’t promoting as a hybrid, made the list.

The Eco has a smaller battery pack than a traditional hybrid, and never runs in all-electric mode. Phelan predicts more cars will adopt this use of hybrid technology in the future.

But Hellwig says, while the car is interesting, the battery pack takes up space and makes the car less usable. For example, the rear seat doesn’t fold down like the standard Malibu.

If a larger car that still gets good gas mileage is the ultimate goal, a diesel powerplant may be in order. Both Hellwig and Phelan like the choice of the Volkswagen Passat TDI ($25,995), which gets the same fuel economy as its Jetta TDI sibling despite being noticeably larger.

“If you have a longer commute where you’re doing 40, 50 miles, that’s a car that could really deliver good mileage numbers,” Hellwig says, adding that it doesn’t feel slow.

“It’s really kind of the best of both worlds.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)