PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- No matter how many twists and turns cars take on commercials filmed along the Pacific Coast Highway, the driving experience of the average person buying that vehicle will be far more mundane.Since the latest recession, it's dawned on more Americans that not only is their typical drive boring, but it's costly as well. When researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute released the results of last year's Urban Mobility Report, they found that the average American commuter wasted $818 in time and gas sitting in traffic in 2011. That's $121 billion total, which is up $1 billion from 2010 but still shy of the $128 billion wasted in pre-recession 2005. The Department of Transportation notes that U.S. drivers, who had been racking up a steadily increasing number of miles since the 1970s, started cutting back in 2008 and never returned fully to the habits of years earlier. Meanwhile, traffic information service Inrix noted that as average gas prices started spiking in 2010, average commute times during peak hours dropped from more than four hours to less than two. A study this spring by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that the average U.S. driver actually started cutting back well before the recession, peaking around 2004 but dropping 6% by 2011. While the total miles driven in the U.S. rose 3.8% from 1948 to 2004, they've been flat since. There are a lot of factors at play here: rising gas prices, fewer people in the workforce, a 4% drop in vehicle ownership since 2006, a 4 percentage-point drop in licensed drivers since 1992, baby boomer retirement and increased use of public transportation, to name a few. That's enough to sap the joy out of the country's love affair with the car, but it's also had the added effect of reawakening U.S. drivers' admiration for one of the auto industry's mainstays: The midsize sedan. Wooed over the past few decades by SUVs and crossovers, car buyers are coming back to the midsize and its middle ground. This year, the 2.8 million midsize cars sold through September outpace the 2.5 million crossovers sold during the same period and are well ahead of the 1.06 million vehicles sold in all non-crossover SUV categories combined. Roomier than more fuel-efficient small-car models and with better mileage than the light trucks, midsized cars may have seen year-to-date sales flatten out over the past year, but they're still the practical car of choice for practical drivers. They're not exciting, but they get the job done. With help from Kelley Blue Book and the folks at MotorIntelligence, we came up with the best -- if somewhat bland -- midsize cars money can buy. Automakers are trying to make them more interesting by messing with their grills and throwing in a bunch of techy options, but their biggest perks are still efficiency, comfort and reliability:
Number sold through September: 14,487
Difference from 2012: -13.7% The effects of the 2013 makeover are starting to fade a bit, but the Malibu is still making inroads in this category. We mentioned that the automakers were trying to make the midsizes a bit more fun with a few tech playthings, but General Motors ( GM) took that to heart by packing the Malibu's base model with an AM-FM stereo with iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth with hands-free streaming of audio from compatible devices, OnStar and Sirius XM ( SIRI) Satellite Radio. Everything above that base model gets a large touch-screen display using Chevrolet's MyLink information and entertainment system, Pandora ( P) Internet Radio playback and Sirus XM Travel Link navigation.
Number sold through September: 19,972
Difference from 2012: 16.5% It's as if it just dawned on Ford that making the Fusion look even remotely like a sports car could do wonders for its sales. That sleek new body and tough-looking grill caught a lot of eyes over the past year, but the additions inside are the ones making buyers even happier. With a sporty new exterior, keyless entry keypad, its own app, Microsoft's ( MSFT) Sync entertainment and communications system (that doubles as a Wi-Fi hotspot), blind-spot alert system, adaptive cruise control and Hill Start Assist that holds the brake when starting on an incline, there are a ton of extraordinary features in what's supposed to be Ford's most ordinary car. Its combined 28 miles per gallon and capless fuel tank are also lovely, but its availability as both a 47 miles per gallon hybrid and as a plug-in electric vehicle is worth noting.
Number sold through September: 21,221
Difference from 2012: 6.6% We once compared the Altima with a cinderblock, a good tomato paste or Eli Manning's haircut -- steady, reliable and at its best when it's reminding you it's not there. We stand by that claim, even if that relative facelessness is starting to lose car buyers' attention as the Detroit midsize crowd gets its makeover. The Altima's combined 33 mpg are still well ahead of the pack, even if its 15.4 cubic feet of cargo lags. The cabin is quiet, the new tech features include satellite radio, Pandora, Bluetooth and hands-free texting, and safety options include blind-spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning system and a moving-object detector. Even a year after getting a sporty facelift in 2013, the Altima is gaining ground. With this year's buyers getting a larger, lighter Altima than they did in 2012, it's easy to see why.
Number sold through September: 25,176
Difference from 2012: 13.8%
Number sold through September: 31,871
Difference from 2012: 1.3% Recall? What recall? The Camry has put some serious mileage between itself and its troubled past and remains the most popular car in the U.S. Its sales are nearly identical to the Chevy Silverado and exceed those of the Dodge Ram. For yet another year, it's going to be the best-selling non-pickup vehicle in the U.S. Is it the combine 30 miles per gallon? The pindrop-quiet interior? The Bluetooth connection or the Entune App Suite entertainment and information center? Maybe its the fact that it's tied with the soon-to-be-departed Dodge Avenger for the title of Most American-made midsize. A full 75% of its parts are made in the U.S., with the folks on the line in Georgetown, Ky., handling the assembly. Toyota's been churning out the Camry here since 1998 and, unlike its counterparts making the Avenger, doesn't plan to stop any time soon. -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.