PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- If you can't make your mundane little sedan more exciting, you can at least keep it cheap.
The latest recession brought it to U.S. drivers' attention that their boring commute was getting costly. When researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute released the results of their 2012 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 to that peak. Meanwhile, traffic information service Inrix notes 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 last 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. Last year, the 3.6 million midsize cars sold by automakers outpaced the 3.4 million crossovers sold during the same period and are well ahead of the 1.4 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 while giving drivers' finances some wiggle room. With help from Kelley Blue Book, 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 grilles and throwing in a bunch of techy options, but their biggest perks are still efficiency, comfort and reliability:
5. 2014 Honda Civic
The Civic's combined 34 miles per gallon and nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway make it a great car to grow into. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags and has a new display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and photos. The utilitarian small sedan also tends to hold up well over the years, making it a gem for used-car buyers who aren't just waiting for a larger, far less efficient vehicle to get less expensive.
4. 2014 Mazda3
The Mazda3 makes this KBB list on a regular basis thanks to a striking amount of power in an extremely small space. A 2.0-liter engine gives this little hatch 155 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class while still putting up nearly 35 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Perks include a moonroof with one-touch open, heated front seats, Bluetooth phone and audio, keyless entry and starter and, most notably, the Mazda Connect information and entertainment system with a 7-inch color touchscreen display.
The voice-activated console can be tricked out with a rearview camera, navigation system, Bose nine-speaker surround sound system, HD radio, Sirius-XM satellite radio with four-month subscription, Pandora and voice-operated text messaging. text message audio delivery and reply. Throw in the dual-zone automatic climate control system, LED head- and taillights, paddle shifters, xenon headlights with auto leveling, leather-trimmed seats, rain-sensing wipers and eight cupholders and it makes for a whole lot more here than a sporty little sedan like this should have.
3. 2014 Nissan Altima
We once compared the Altima with a cinder block, 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 miles per gallon are still well ahead of the pack, even if its 15.4 cubic feet of cargo lags behind. 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.
2. 2014 Ford Fusion
Starting price: $21,970
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 grille caught a lot of eyes over the last 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 SYNC entertainment and communications system (that also doubles as a Wi-Fi hotspot) a 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.
1. 2014 Honda Accord
It's nice to watch a year of upgrades pay off immediately
Back in 2013, Honda's goal was to make the Accord less of a Point A-to-Point B snooze fest by adding standard an 8-inch LCD display for its information, communication and app-based entertainment system, a single-angle backup camera, dual zone climate control, a lane-drift detector, a power moonroof and alloy wheels. New options include a three-angle backup cam, enhanced safety sensors, LED running lights and adaptive cruise control.
The one element that remained intact, however, was the Accord's combined 32 miles per gallon. Though the Detroit makeovers haven't helped the Accord, it's still one of only two cars among the Top 5 vehicles sold in the U.S. The country that loves it a Ford F-Series, a Chevy Silverado and a Dodge Ram also loves an Accord.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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