PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) – The sedan is practical and, in many cases, affordable, but by no means sexy.
The old reliable sedan just keeps kicking, but its image has become as staid and repulsive as the commutes it makes without complaint. 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. driver, 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. We'll see how plummeting gas prices affect that change, but other trends indicate commutes just won't get any longer.
A study done two years ago 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 cutting into the average commute: 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 and, sadly, the midsize sedan.
Wooed over the past few decades by SUVs and crossovers, car buyers had lower gas prices usher them into 3.84 million crossover vehicles in 2014. That's up 13.3% from 2013 and well more than the 3.6 million midsize cars sold by automakers at the same time. That figure remained fairly flat and steady, much like the sedan itself.
They're not exciting, but they get the job done and give drivers' finances some wiggle room. 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:
5. 2015 Honda Civic
Starting price: $18,490
The Civic's combined 35 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. 2015 Mazda 3
Starting price: $16,945
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 start 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 a four-month subscription, Pandora and voice-operated text message audio delivery and reply. 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 offer a whole lot more than a sporty little sedan like this should have.
3. 2015 Nissan Altima
Starting price: $22,110
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.
Best of all, Nissan turned NASA research into the Altima's "zero gravity inspired" front seats, which are far more comfortable than that marketing pitch lets on. 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. 2015 Ford Fusion
Starting price: $22,010
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 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 mile per gallon hybrid and as a plug-in electric vehicle is worth noting.
1. 2015 Honda Accord
Starting price: $22,105
Even an old, reliable mainstay needs some upgrades from time to time
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 eight-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, either, 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.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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