AAA, North America's largest motoring and leisure travel organization with more than 51 million members (myself among them) has put together its list of the top vehicle picks for consumers. I've examined the list for you and highlighted some of the pros and cons, as well as adding in what Consumer Reports (where I am also a subscriber) has to say.
None of the vehicles on this list, which is presented in the order AAA released it, are going to disappoint you. It all depends on your personal driving needs and tastes. As always, make sure you get a complete inspection before buying any used car.
The Insight is just now hitting the used car market but the good news is Aaron Gold, About.Com guide to new cars, has had one for a long-term test. You can follow his experiences at his website. One thing the Insight has going for it is its price because it's less expensive than other hybrids. Backseat passengers may find it a bit cramped.
This is a really good car. The 2007-09 model years get strong recommendations from Consumer Reports. This sedan will make any commute tolerable. As AAA points out, the hybrid comes with a much higher price. Stick to the four-cylinder model for best commuting mileage and overall price combined. A used 2007 model can be found for less than $13,500.
Volkswagen Jetta TDI
This is a fun little diesel to drive. It's quiet - yes, modern diesels are quiet - and it's a good commuter car because of its diesel fuel economy. Some reviewers find the turbodiesel to be a little poky, but commuting's not all about speed anyway.
Let's face it. The Elantra is not going to turn any heads, but it is darn reliable. Plus, if anything goes wrong (that's covered), it has the 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty behind it for the original owner. A five-year, 60,000-mile warranty is transferable. Fuel economy is good and Consumer Reports makes the 2007 and 2009 models good bets. It does show concerns about the fuel system in 2008 models.
It's up to you which looks better: the redesigned 2010 models or the previous generation. Either way, you're going to get a steady, dependable car that offers all-wheel drive for the worst driving conditions. Nothing worse than being stuck in a car that slips and slides while trying to get home during a rush hour snowstorm.
I speak from first-hand experience when endorsing the Honda Civic along with AAA. It belongs at the top of any list among compacts whether your commute to work is three miles (like mine once was) or its 30 miles. One minor complaint would be electronic stability control is only available on the hybrid and Si models. It's an important feature that becomes standard on all cars in 2012. By the way, Consumer Reports give this sedan high marks.
Before 2006, it's difficult to recommend a Malibu, but it you have the $13,000 to buy a good used 2008 or 2007 model, you're going to be happy. The 2007 model is the plainer of the two years, but it's a dependable sedan with plenty of room for your carpool inside. Consumer Reports gives it fairly high marks across the board for 2007 to 2009.
Look up dependable mid-size sedan in the dictionary and you'll probably see a picture of an Accord. It was a great vehicle to drive back in 1987 (my first experience) and it continues to be 24 years later. The 2004-2007 models get excellent reliability remarks from Consumer Reports. Middle of the road in its design (not too edgy, not too bland), the Accord is bound to please you inside and out.
My love affair with the Mazda goes way back (like the Accord to the mid-80s). The Mazda3 is a great compact vehicle that's fun to drive. AAA says it can be a little rough riding on poorly maintained urban roads. I liked the looks of the previous generation. Like other models on this page, 2007 was a great year for the Mazda3, according to Consumer Reports. A good model can be had for $10,000. By the way, don't confuse this pleasing consumer sedan with the much edgier MazdaSpeed3. That will get you where you want to go in a hurry, but may not be too pleasing for a daily commuter.