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CARFAX Finds: Commuter Cars

The commuter car can take many shapes, but it basically means one thing: It’s the car you’re going to do hundreds of miles a week in and slob out in most of the time.

Since the fuel conscious days of the 1970s, commuter cars were often small and uncomfortable. But now they’re loaded with the luxuries only the most lavish cars of that era were equipped with, like power windows and air conditioning, let alone FM radio.

Here are three cars that offer all of that opulence (even satellite radio and Bluetooth, in some cases), while managing to deliver stellar fuel economy and even a good driving experience.

Mini Cooper

2011 Mini Cooper
(BMW of North America, LLC)

Many people choose the Mini Cooper as a fashion statement, but it’s an extremely effective commuter car, too. Highway fuel economy ratings of around 40 mpg, a surprising amount of space to spread out inside and darty handling make it perfect for long drives. Better still, the Mini is so much fun that you might not mind the same drive every single day. Well, mind it as much, anyway.

The 2007-2013 Cooper variant with its non-turbocharged engine starts at around $8,000. It might be worth, however, seeking out a lower-mileage, newer car in order to secure a warranty. Minis aren’t bulletproof and their BMW heritage means they can command German-like prices at the service desk. This isn’t a Toyota.

But you’ll be rewarded with a personality and sense of style that is very un-Toyotalike. A Mini isn’t a cheap car, which is apparent from common options like leather and a panoramic moonroof. And if you’re spending a lot of time in your car, why should you pinch pennies on the experience?

Ford Focus

2012 Ford Focus
(The Ford Motor Company)

If you like the idea of a fun-to-drive commuter car but need more space, there’s Ford Focus. Since its 2000 introduction, the Focus has been a compact car that’s as practical as it is fun to drive, being a surprise to those who were expecting just an inexpensive Ford. The Focus is widely available and prices for a current generation model made from 2012 start as low as $8,000. However, it’s worth seeking out a nicer, better-equipped hatchback starting from $11,000 or so.

Opt for one of the higher-end models, and you’ll be treated to features such as a power driver’s seat, automatic climate control and Ford’s controversial MyFord Touch multimedia system. The infotainment setup certainly has its quirks, but it has comprehensive voice recognition functions and navigation as a relatively inexpensive option.

Better still, the hatchback version of the Focus is fairly spacious for the class, with solid road manners that make you feel like you’re in something far more expensive. And with fuel economy in the high 30s, it won’t break the bank at the pump.

Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen

2014 VW Jetta SportWagen
(Volkswagen of America, Inc.)

Instead of considering a small SUV for efficient hauling capabilities, take a look at a used Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. It has a vast cargo area with the seats folded, but rewards with solid build quality. Oh, and highway fuel economy north of 40 mpg. Prices start from about $14,000 for a used 2009-2014 Jetta SportWagen.

Volkswagen sells pretty much the only modestly priced wagon in the U.S. these days, and the TDI diesel version of the Jetta wagon has been a hit since it went on sale back in 2009. While it was replaced by the Golf SportWagen for the 2015 model year, the outgoing Jetta SportWagen makes sense for a lot of people by blending fuel efficiency and a vast highway range with something that’s nimble around town and can swallow a small family’s cargo. Better still, the Jetta wagon follows in the tradition of other VWs that feel leagues more premium than their prices suggest, while still being good to drive on a backroad. All versions have leatherette seats, heated front seats and alloy wheels, and many on the used market also have a panoramic glass roof and navigation – even if it’s not the greatest system to use.

And the VW TDI models hold their value very well, with consistently strong demand even for high-mileage used ones. That’s something to think about when your Jetta starts to smell too much like your dog.

These are three different models that prove that commuter cars don’t have to be penalty boxes. Yes, they’re good for the daily drive and yes, they get good fuel economy. And they even have reclining bucket seats. What more could you want?

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