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: