Best used cars for long commutes

Highway commuteAccording to U.S. Census data, an average one-way daily commute time in America is just over 25 minutes and more than 8 percent of workers spend an hour or more driving to or from work. Many commuters opt for used cars to save on initial costs and insurance. We picked the 9 best used cars for long commutes. We looked at reliability data from Consumer Reports, compared maintenance costs, checked fuel economy and other ratings. As usual, we left one spot for a reader’s choice. Feel free to vote.

Honda Civic

2006 Honda Civic sedanOne of the perennial best sellers, the Civic is also one of the best cars for long commutes. The Civic offers precise and responsive handling and good road feel. The ride is firm, but compliant. ConsumerReports rates the Civic’s reliability ‘above average’; maintenance costs are fairly low too. Honda Civic is one of the most fuel efficient vehicles in its class. The 2007 Honda Civic with an automatic transmission gets 36 mpg on the highway. The Civic is also available as a hybrid, however there are reports about the hybrid battery problems. If you want to buy a hybrid, the Honda Insight or Toyota Prius would be  a better choice.

Mazda 3, 2004 and newer

2012 Mazda 3 sedanMazda 3 is an excellent choice if you want a sporty small car with a peppy engine. Mazda 3 is available as a hatchback or sedan, with a manual or automatic transmission. With an independent rear suspension, the 3 is fun to toss around the corners. Mazda 3 is powered by a 2.0L or 2.3L (2.5L from 2010) engine. The ride is firm, but comfortable, although there is some road noise. The interior is sporty and nicely finished. Mazda 3 is very reliable; maintenance costs are moderate. Fuel economy is average for the class.  The 2010 2.0L Mazda 3 gets 24/33 mpg with an automatic and 25/33 mpg with a manual transmission.

Honda Insight hybrid, 2010 and newer

Honda Insight 2012The second-generation Honda Insight is an aerodynamically-shaped 5-passenger hatchback. It’s about the same size as the Civic, but with less rear seat space. The Insight has a 1.3L engine and a continuously variable transmission with the electric motor/generator sandwiched between them. The Insight handles sporty for a hybrid, especially compared to the Prius, but the ride is firm and road noise is noticeable. Honda Insight is reliable and is very good on gas. The 2010 Honda Insight is rated at 40/43 mpg city/highway.

Volkswagen Jetta/Golf TDI diesel

Volkswagen Jetta 2004Volkswagen doesn’t have the best reputation for reliability, however the TDI diesel models are known to last for 200,000 miles and more, especially with a manual transmission. What is remarkable about the diesel is the fuel economy. The 2004 VW Jetta TDI diesel with a manual transmission is rated at 32/42 mpg  city/highway, with the annual fuel cost estimated around $2,250 at 22,000 miles per year. The Jetta comes as a sedan or wagon. It handles very well and is comfortable to drive on long distance trips. The Golf hatchback is also available with a diesel engine. VW diesel models  are rare, but if you find one in good mechanical shape, it could serve you well for a few years.

Toyota Corolla

Toyota Corolla 2009If you are looking for exciting driving experience or rich interior, the Corolla is not the car for you, but if you need a simple dependable commuter car, don’t overlook it. Toyota Corolla is one of the most reliable cars on the market and won’t cost you a lot to maintain. It’s also one of the segment leaders in resale value.  The base 1.8L engine is adequate in day-to-day driving, but it won’t overwhelm you with power.  The handling is predictable, but the steering lacks feedback and feels somewhat numb on center. The ride is soft and comfortable. The cabin is fairly quiet, although you will hear some engine noise on acceleration. The 2009 Corolla with an automatic transmission is rated at 27/35 mpg.

Toyota Prius hybrid, 2004 and newer

Toyota Prius 2005The 2004 and newer Prius is a fairly small hatchback with a very roomy interior. The Prius has enough power to pass or merge on the highway, yet, it’s one of the most fuel efficient cars –  the 2009 Toyota Prius is rated at 48/45 mpg city/highway.  With a 40-mile one way commute and some weekend grocery shopping, you will probably have to fill the Prius’s 11.9-gallon tank only once a week. At 22,000 miles per year, with mostly highway driving, the Prius’s annual fuel cost is estimated at $1,600. How can you beat that? Despite all the high-tech stuff, Toyota Prius is very reliable. We’ve done some research and found that the Prius’s hybrid battery rarely needs replacement and often lasts more than 200,000 miles.

Honda Accord (4-cylinder)

2006 Honda AccordHonda Accord is one of the leaders among family sedans. It offers a roomy nicely-done interior and a refined powertrain. The Accord’s 2.4L 4-cylinder engine is one of the best in its class. It provides reasonable power and decent fuel economy. Handling is precise and responsive. The ride is on the firm side, but compliant.  The reliability is above average, maintenance costs are moderate. Honda Accord scored well in the crash tests. Front seats are very comfortable even on long trips. The 2010 automatic Honda gets 21/31 mpg city /highway, however, the 2011 4-cylinder Honda Accord with an automatic transmission is rated at 23/34 mpg city/highway by the EPA.

Honda Fit

2010 Honda Fit Sport.The Fit is a fun-to-drive subcompact with a very roomy interior and flexible cargo space. The Fit’s unique feature is the rear seat that not only folds down but flips up, allowing to haul tall cargo in the second row. Honda Fit is very reliable and easy to maintain. It handles well and feels nimble on the road, although the ride is firm and the road noise is noticeable. Also, the cracks in the pavement and expansion joints are felt when driving over them, partially due to smaller tires.  If this doesn’t bother you, it’s an excellent practical small car. The 2010 Honda Fit with an automatic transmission is rated at 28/35 mpg city/highway.

Chevrolet Equinox / GMC Terrain, FWD, 2010 and newer

2012 Chevrolet EquinoxIf you want a family vehicle that is suitable for long commutes, check out the 2010 and newer 4-cylinder Chevy Equinox or its mechanical twin, GMC Terrain. Both models are rated at 32 mpg on the highway in a front-wheel drive trim, which is even better than most family sedans. The segment mainstays like Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are also behind: they both are rated at 28 mpg on the highway in front-wheel drive trims. The Equinox and the Terrain offer a very stylish, well equipped cabin with plenty of passenger space. The long-term reliability is not proven yet, but to date, they don’t have too many problems. Either vehicle offers secure handling and very comfortable highway ride.

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Top 10 sports cars under $20,000

New sports cars are priced from $25,000 and up, but what about used cars? We researched the used car market and found plenty of choices in the 15K-22K price range. Our requirement for this list:
1. Available in sufficient numbers in the U.S.
2. Minimum 0 to 60 mph time: 6.5 seconds.
3. 2000 or newer.

Chevrolet Corvette C5

Chevrolet Corvette 2001 © General MotorsThe C5 Corvette (1997-2004) is a classic rear-wheel drive two-seater sports car with a lightweight body and a small-block V8. The C5 Corvette is available as a coupe, convertible or a hardtop. With the transmission in the back, the Corvette has nearly perfect weight distribution and handles exceptionally well. A 6-speed manual transmission is available, but three quarters of Corvettes we found in this price range have an automatic. The high-performance Corvette Z06 has more power and comes only with a manual. The ride is firm, so it is probably not a very good choice for a daily driver. The Corvette holds its value very well, so you won’t lose a lot when you decide to sell it. The C5 Corvette is rated above average for reliability by Consumer Reports. The 0 to 60 times: 1998 Corvette – 4.8 seconds. 2004 Corvette Z06 – 4.2 seconds

Ford Mustang GT 2003-2011

Ford Mustang 2009This iconic pony car is widely available and we even found a few SVT Cobra and Shelby models for under $20,000. The Mustang is more of a straight-line-power muscle car with 2+2 seating, although it handles well even with the solid rear axle in the back. Ford offered an independent rear suspension (IRS) in the 1999-2004 SVT Cobra, but the old-school solid rear axle works just fine and fits better into the Mustang “raw power” image. The V8 offers plenty of torque and sounds terrific. The Mustang is for the most part reliable and not very expensive to maintain. The interior could be more refined, but if this doesn’t bother you, it’s a great affordable sports car. The 2003 Mustang GT accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds.

Subaru Impreza WRX/WRX STi

Subaru Impreza WRX STi 2011The Impreza WRX/WRX STi is a small all-wheel drive rally car with a turbocharged “boxer” engine for low center of gravity.  For under 20K, you can buy the rugged second-generation sedan or wagon, or the softer and larger third-generation sedan or hatchback WRX. The WRX STi has more power, stronger 6-speed manual gearbox, better suspension, brakes and a few other mods. The second-generation 2004-2007 WRX STi comes only as a sedan, while the 2008-2010 WRX STi is a hatch only. Subaru Impreza WRX is well-built and reliable, but a lot will depend on how hard it was driven by previous owners. The 0 to 60 mph times (Stock): 2006 WRX – 6.0 seconds. 2006 WRX STi – 4.5 seconds. 2008 WRX STi – 4.8 seconds.

BMW M3 E46

BMW M3 E46 2003The E46 M3 comes as a rear-wheel drive coupe or convertible. With 330 horsepower and sport suspension to match it, you will go through a lot of tires in this Ultimate Driving Machine. It’s also comfortable enough to work as a daily driver. With the usual 3.2L inline-6 under the hood, the E46 M3 is available with a 6-speed manual or SMG (automated manual) transmission. Of course, the stick is the best choice. In terms of reliability, the M3 is not too bad, but it is not a Honda – if you enjoy doing repairs yourself, this car will keep you busy. Research the e46 forums before buying the M3, as there is a lot of specifics. Many owners advise, for example, to modify the rear suspension to prevent expensive subframe repairs. The 0 to 60 mph time: 4.8 seconds.

Honda S2000

Honda S2000You can’t go wrong with this small roadster. The S2000 is a rear-wheel drive two-seater with a high-revving 4-cylinder engine redlining at 9000 RPM and only a 6-speed manual transmission. With 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, this thing is a lot of fun to drive, although you have to rev the engine past 6000 rpms to get to the power. For a daily driver it’s cramped and a bit noisy, but it won’t bother you once you get the chance to see what it can do. It’s also very reliable, although it might be hard to find the S2K that hasn’t been raced. The tuner market is huge for it, but the insurance could be very expensive, as the S2000 is one of the most stolen cars. The S2000 0 to 60 mph time: 5.8 seconds

Nissan 350Z

2008 Nissan 350ZThe 350Z is a rear-wheel drive V6 powered two-seater available as a hatchback-coupe or convertible. The 350Z is the second most widely available sports car after the Mustang. The good news is that almost half of those we found for sale are equipped with a manual transmission.  The 350Z has plenty of power and is fun to toss around the corners, but the ride is firm and noisy and the cabin is cramped. Open the hood, and you will find the very popular 3.5L V6 VQ engine. The Nissan GT-R’s V6 is loosely based on the VQ motor and even looks similar. The 350Z is reliable for the most part, but there were a few issues with tires wearing fast, engine oil consumption and some transmission glitches that you probably want to research first. The 350Z reaches 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds.

Chevrolet Camaro

Chevrolet Camaro SSThe Camaro reappeared for 2010 and is already widely available on the used car market. It is a rear-wheel drive 4-seater muscle car with a refined suspension and powertrain available as a two-door coupe or convertible. The Camaro comes with a V8 or V6 engine and an automatic or six-speed manual transmission. Most cars we found for this price are V6-powered and about one third of them have a stick shift. Of course, the 3.6L direct-injected V6 is no slouch, delivering 304 horsepower.  The interior is nicely done, although the rear seat is fairly small. The outward visibility could be a deal breaker, but if you can live with it, it’s a steal for this price. The 0 to 60 time: V6 manual: 4.9 seconds.

Infiniti G35/37 Coupe

Infiniti G37 Coupe 2008The Infiniti G35 coupe shares its rear-wheel drive platform with the Nissan 350Z but it’s more refined and comfortable, which makes it more suitable as a daily driver. The G35/37 handling is often compared to the BMW 3-series. Reliability is above average. It’s an upscale car, so you are more likely to find it in good condition, than, for example, Subaru WRX. The G37 Coupe replaced the G35 for 2008 model year. The G37 is faster and has a more luxurious interior. It’s also the first production car to use the VVEL technology, where the amount of intake air can be controlled directly by the intake valves rather than the throttle for faster response.  The 0 to 60 mph times: G35 Coupe: 5.5 seconds, G37 Coupe: 5.3 seconds.

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Worth mentioning

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, X - the Evo is definitely one of the top sports cars for under 20000, but we found less than a hundred of Evo IX and only several Evo X for sale in all the US under 20K. Is this enough to include the Evo on this list? Cast your vote!
Subaru BRZ / Scion FRS - wait for a year or two. As of now, they are priced higher.
Volkswagen GTI – plenty are available for under 20000. The GTI is a fun to drive FWD hatchback with a turbocharged engine and a nicely done interior. The 0 to 60 time is 6.1 seconds. Reliability is not great. Is the VW GTI really a sports car? Should it be included on this list? Vote!
Mazdaspeed3 – widely available fast FWD hatchback with a 2.3L turbo engine. The 0 to 60 time is under 6 seconds. Reliability is OK. Is it one of the top 10? Vote!
Pontiac GTO 2004-2006 The GTO is a rear-wheel drive 2+2 coupe with a 5.7L or 6.0L V8. The GTO is a rebadged Australian Holden Monaro that was based on the European Opel Omega. It’s basically a European-looking version of an American muscle car.
Mazda RX-8 - handles very well, redlines at 9,000 rpm and sounds great doing it. The 0 to 60 time is 6.4 seconds. The short manual shifter is excellent but… There is practically no torque off the line and would you really recommend the RX-8 to a friend unless he or she is willing to learn all the tricks of driving and maintaining a rotary engine?
Mazda MX-5 Miata – It’s a good candidate for a top 10 fun-to-drive cars, but it’s a very small two-seater and it’s not really fast. If you are over 6″ tall, you are going to have hard time getting in and out of this car. Plus, the 0-to 60 time is about 6.8 seconds.
Dodge Challenger 2009-2011 RT/SRT8 – nice one, but you are going to have to wait for a few months. Currently, only a very few V8-powered Challengers are available for this price. You can easily find the 2009 or 2010 Challenger SE, but it comes with a 250-hp V6.
Pontiac G8 – gorgeous car riding on the same platform as the Camaro. Plenty are available for this price. Cast your vote.
Acura NSX - Yeah, right. The lowest price is $44,000.
Porsche Cayman - excellent rear-wheel drive, rear mid-engined two-seater; currently priced around 30K and higher.
Porsche Boxster / Boxster S 2000-2006 -  nice one, the 0 to 60 time for Boxster S is around 6 seconds. Still, it’s more of a roadster, isn’t it? Vote!
Pontiac Solstice GXP / Saturn Sky Red Line 2007-2009 - These twins come with a turbocharged 260-hp 4-cylinder engine. The 0 to 60 time: 5.5 seconds.
Audi TT – there are plenty of 2000-2006 Audi TT for sale, but it’s really not that fast. The 0 to 60 time is in the 6.7 – 7.4 seconds range. The 2008 and newer TT is faster, but only a few of them are available for this price.

What to look for

First, check the insurance rate, as for some of these cars it could be very expensive. It’s highly unlikely that you can find any of these cars in an ‘old-lady-driven’ condition, so a lot depends on how much a car was abused by previous owners. For this reason, a thorough mechanical inspection is a must. We would also recommend to do a leak-down and compression test and if a car has a turbocharger, check if the turbo leaks oil. Be careful with modified cars, as not all mods are done properly.
Check also:

Top 10 cars for under $5,000 with good gas mileage
Top 10 cars with best MPG for under $10,000
Top 10 convertibles for under $10,000
Top 10 sporty cars for under 15K
Top 10 used SUVs with good gas mileage

New Mazda 3: Mini Mazda 6

Mazda released photos of the new Mazda 3 and it pretty much looks like mini Mazda 6, although the grill seems to be a bit too ‘heavy’ on a small car like this. One of the highlights is the new Active Driving Display that is located behind the main instrument cluster. The display rises into position when the ignition is turned on.