Compact sedans: The perfect ride for a long commute

Red car in shopping cart

If you're looking for the ultimate in practical transportation, we have three great compact sedans for you to consider.

We checked out more than 20 competing models to find the best combination of price, comfort and performance. These are the perfect commuting cars with enough room for the entire family to pile in on the weekend.

All start at under $15,000, though the versions we like the best are more like $18,000. All boast roomy trunks and five-passenger seating, though we wouldn't want to be the fifth for a long drive. All have front-wheel drive and four-cylinder engines that deliver exceptional fuel economy, though ... well, there's nothing to qualify here. You'll appreciate these cars every time you pull up to the pump.

Mazda3

The Mazda3 tops our shopping list because it's a blast to drive.

A distinctive, modern design makes the Mazda3 look fast even when it's standing still. The interior is reasonably spacious and accommodating to tall drivers, with stylish gauges and above-average quality in terms of craftsmanship and materials.

Yes, the ride can be stiff some might say harsh. But that's the price you pay to bolt away from traffic lights and dive through turns with startling quickness and agility. A choice of two four-cylinder engines can be paired with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Whatever you pick will get terrific mileage, ranging from 25 miles per gallon city to 35 m.p.g. highway.

The Mazda3 is available as a sedan or five-door hatchback and with a long list of options including high-end goodies such as satellite radio. (A nifty outlet that connects your MP3 player to the sound system is standard in all versions). Prices start at $13,795.

But since this car is all about fun, we'd opt for the mid-level "s Sport" model outfitted with the bigger four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission and anti-lock brakes. We'd pay $245 more for the front side and side curtain airbags, which brings the total price up to $17,090, including destination charges.

If your commute subjects you to lots of stop-and-go driving, then you should go with the automatic transmission, which adds another $1,000.

Honda Civic

The Civic is the perfect blend of comfort and performance. With a tried-and-true record for quality it's the best choice for many drivers seeking economical, safe transportation.

You can order a two- or four-door model with one of Honda's industry-leading four-cylinder engines and expect to get 30 m.p.g. city and 40 m.p.g. highway. Want to go green? There's a version that runs on natural gas and a gas-electric hybrid rated at 49 m.p.g. city and 51 m.p.g. highway.

Whichever you choose, you'll find the Civic has adequate power, a more pleasing ride than the Mazda3, responsive handling, a refined cabin and long list of standard safety features, including front side airbags and side curtain airbags.

When it was redesigned for 2006, the Civic shed its conservative appearance for a swoopy, futuristic look that features a sharply sloping windshield and hood and an unusual, two-tiered instrument panel. The top tier shows the digital speedometer and gas gauge, the bottom has other analog gauges. We find it gimmicky and annoying. You might, too.

While prices begin at $14,810, we recommend the mid-grade LX sedan equipped the silky-smooth five-speed automatic transmission that costs $17,760. It's got just about everything you could want, including cruise control, power windows and locks. With destination charge the sticker price will be $18,355.

But if you want a hybrid, this is the one to get. Although it costs about $4,400 more than the LX, but the Civic is one of two hybrids we recommend because studies show lower operating costs will offset its higher initial cost.

Toyota Corolla

The Corolla is all about quiet and comfort. It's not nearly as fun to drive or pleasing to look at as the Mazda3 or even the Civic. But it's a car that can ease the rigors of a long, trying commute.

It only comes as a four-door sedan no hatchback or coupe version like the Mazda3 or Civic. There's only one four-cylinder engine, which delivers below average power but above average gas mileage 30 m.p.g. city to 41 m.p.g. highway.

But the well-designed interior is made with materials that look like they belong in a more expensive car. The roomy back seat and spacious trunk have room for the entire family and all their stuff. It's record for quality, reliability and safety are right up there with Civic.

Since Corolla is built to shelter you from the frantic world beyond your bumper, why not skip the basic models that start at $14,205 and go for a top-of-the-line LE version? With power windows and locks, and remote keyless entry and four-speed automatic transmission it costs $16,215.

Add "Option Combination C" with anti-lock brakes, front side and side curtain airbags, a premium sound system, cruise control and stability and traction control something not available on most other cars in the class for another $1,315. Throw in the destination charge and you're looking at $18,110.