The 8 best commuting cars for 2014

Take some of the stress out of getting to work

Let one of our seven favorite commuting cars take the stress and worry out of those regular slogs to work, the supermarket and other day-in, day-out destinations. We picked these 2014 models because they're safe and economical. All have earned a "Top Safety Pick" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Well, except for two that are so new they haven't been tested yet. All get at least 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving, according to the EPA. They're supremely comfortable and reliable, too, earning a score of at least 70 out of 100 from the demanding test drivers at Consumer Reports magazine. (Same exception. Two haven't been tested yet.)

Prices start at just over $19,000 and climb to just under $31,000, including destination charges. And since we don't like shifting gears in stop-and-go traffic, all of our recommendations come with automatic transmissions, front-wheel drive and such basic creature comforts as air conditioning, power windows, door locks and outside mirrors. You won't find anything cheap or stripped-down about our favorites. Here they are, starting with the least expensive.

2014 Nissan Versa Note SV

Price: $19,300
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg city/40 highway/35 combined

While you can get a fairly decked-out version of Nissan's new hatchback for under $17,000, we suggest going for the whole enchilada with the SL Tech Package. Why? Because you spend several hours a week driving to and from work and deserve all the bells and whistles that make the trip more enjoyable. And thanks to the Note's low base price, you can get all of the goodies without breaking the bank. So go ahead and treat yourself to a 5.8-inch touch screen, 360-degree parking camera, navigation system and four-speaker sound system. Let's be clear. The Note's 109-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission are designed to deliver great gas mileage, not neck-snapping performance. Nor will you be wowed by the basic, heavily plastic interior. But the Note is a highly affordable way to get around. This is one of the two new cars that are too new to have been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or Consumer Reports.

2013 Mazda3 iTouring 5-Door

Price: $23,540
Fuel Economy: 30 mpg city/40 highway/33 combined

Sleek styling. Fuel-stingy engine. Upscale cabin. The redesigned Mazda3 has it all. We particularly like the hatchback's exterior lines. (Disagree? Opting for the sedan will save you $500.) We priced it with the six-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission as well as the $1,600 Technology Package, which includes goodies like dual-zone climate control and Mazda Connect with 7-inch touch screen, electronics interface, navigation system and nine-speaker surround-sound audio system. Wheel-mounted audio controls and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert are also standard. The 155-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder engine proves “Zoom Zoom” is alive and well. Ask any Mazda3 owner, and they'll tell you this car is athletic, nimble and just plain fun to drive. The cabin is surprisingly roomy, comfortable and quiet. High-quality parts and materials are what you'd expect to find on a much more expensive car. Mazda even arranged the instrument panel to minimize distractions and the time a driver's eyes stray from the road.

2014 Honda Accord LX

Price: $23,545
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg city/36 highway/30 combined

One of the things that really sells us on the Accord is that even the base LX comes gussied up with voice recognition, text-message function, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-inch touch screen and an audio system with iPod interface and Pandora capability. What we also like about the midsize Accord is its roomy cabin and reputation for safety. Accords aren't quite bulletproof, but you'll have a tough time convincing most Accord owners of that. The 185-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission is one of the most refined and efficient powertrains you'll find anywhere. Whether cruising down the expressway or slugging through stop-and-go city traffic, Accord provides a wonderful balance of ride comfort and predictable handling. A roomy interior full of quality components also makes this a great family car. Think of this as a commuter for those who need to take some people with them.

2014 Ford Focus Titanium

Price: $24,910
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg city/37 highway/31 combined

Not only are we impressed with the solid fuel economy numbers Focus posts, but the Titanium version is crammed with high-end technology. Ford is a leader in voice-recognition technology, and its Sync system with its phone and audio interface is standard in Titanium. The multiscreen MyFord Touch with its 8-inch touch screen is also included. Other standard goodies: dual-zone automatic climate control, a backup camera and a 10-speaker Sony-infused audio system. A 160-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission provide plenty of punch. The roomy cabin could easily belong to a much more expensive car and insulates passengers from most of the racket going on outside. The front seats are comfortable and supportive. If you're going to be stuck in traffic every day, Focus Titanium is not a bad place to be. Interesting fact: The Focus is the only carryover from last year's list of favorite commuting cars.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel

Price: $25,810
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg city/46 highway/33 combined

The Cruze not only earns high marks for comfort and safety, it's the first diesel-powered car General Motors has sold in the United States in nearly 30 years. Why take a chance with it? The 2.0-liter turbo diesel delivers twice the torque of the standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and generates 151 horsepower — more than any of the gas-fueled motors available in the Cruze. So not only is it stingy with fuel, it will send you charging to the front when the light goes green and you start putting the six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission through its paces. The Cruze's cabin is roomy and comfortable with high-quality materials that create a surprisingly premium look for a car of this price. We figure you could spend a lot of quality time in the heated leather power driver's seat fiddling with the six-speaker, satellite-capable sound system.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250

Price: $30,825
Fuel Economy: 26 mpg city/38 highway/30 combined

We never dreamed we would ever include a Mercedes-Benz on a list of cars getting 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Just as startling is the price. Since we like to include one luxury ride among our picks, we decided to take a chance on the all-new CLA250. We love its drop-dead good looks, even though the swooping coupe-like roof line minimizes rear-seat headroom. It doesn't appear that Mercedes cut any corners in materials or workmanship in the high-end cabin. It's loaded with lots of technology too, such as a 5.8-inch display with Mercedes COMAND interface. This is the only front-wheel-drive car Mercedes sells here, and its seven-speed automatic transmission works with the most powerful engine in our slide show, a 2-liter turbocharged four that develops 208 horsepower. But this is the other car that has not yet been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or Consumer Reports. Go see if its performance justifies our support.

2014 Toyota Prius Plug-in

Price: $30,710
Fuel Economy: 51 mpg city/48 highway/50 combined

How could we do a list of the best commuter cars and not include a Prius among our picks? We couldn't. It's the best-selling hybrid on the market. We chose the plug-in hybrid because Toyota lowered its price by more than $2,000 for 2014. And it's still eligible for up to a $2,500 federal tax credit. It only takes about 3 hours to fully charge the batteries from a standard 120-volt outlet, and you can drive about 11 miles just on battery power. After that, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and dual electric motors kick into traditional hybrid mode to generate a reasonable 134 horsepower and deliver the most impressive gas mileage in our slide show. If fuel costs are your major concern, then you've got to consider a Prius. The cabin is roomy and loaded with features such as heated front seats, backup camera, navigation system with touch screen and six-speaker audio system with satellite radio capability.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SE

Price: $28,080
Fuel Economy: 42 mpg city/48 highway/45 combined

What first struck us is the Jetta Hybrid's athleticism. It not only achieves the second-best fuel economy of our picks, but it delivers the uber handling characteristics expected from Volkswagen. Its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and electric motor generate an impressive 170 horsepower, which the seven-speed automatic puts to good use. So while the Jetta can't match the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius, it's way more fun to drive. (Those VW commercials are true.) The SE is the least expensive version of the Jetta Hybrid, but it provides nearly every must-have on our list. We would have liked a backup camera, too, but we didn't want to pony up the extra $2,585 to get an SEL. The interior is as spacious, although not quite as well-appointed, as most of our other picks. Notable standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, color touch screen and a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio.

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