For most of us, the daily commute is an inescapable fact of modern life. It makes sense, then, to purchase a car that keeps the slog to and from work as pleasant as possible. Sometimes that means foregoing certain features that make a car "fun," because they're not practical on a day-by-day basis in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
We surveyed our editors to determine which features they consider must-haves in commuter cars. Here are 10 that we look for in cars we evaluate; we think you should consider them as well.
1. Comfortable seats
Different people have different requirements when it comes to seat comfort. Features such as side bolstering or lumbar support, for example, work well for some, but are obtrusive for others. Power controls are always good — they allow you to fine-tune the seat position while you're driving, rather than having to stop the car. A seat-height adjuster can go a long way toward making a seat a comfortable fit for very short or very tall drivers, but some manufacturers insist that one size fits all. A telescoping steering wheel and adjustable pedals can also be a great help. Those who live in colder climes or suffer from back problems may benefit from seats that are heated. And of course, a comfortable seat means nothing if you have long legs, and the seat doesn't scoot back far enough to accommodate them. The important thing here is to drive the car before you buy it; it's the only way to know if the seat meets your needs.
2. Automatic transmission
The vast majority of cars sold in the U.S. are equipped with an automatic tranny. Operating a car with an automatic gearbox means you don't have to deal with a clutch, and you can keep both hands on the wheel in stop-and-go traffic. There are two main reasons for picking a manual-equipped vehicle. One is economic necessity; automatic trannies generally add about $1,000 to the MSRP and often result in lower gas mileage. The second has to do with the "fun to drive" factor; manual trannies allow more involvement and control, given the proper circumstances. If you do opt for a manual, look for a car with a tall first gear and sufficient low-end torque to crawl through traffic without having to shift too often. Additionally, Subaru's Forester offers a feature that we wish was available on more manual-shift cars — a Hill Holder Clutch that prevents the car from sliding backward on inclines when you release the brake.
3. Good visibility
Thin A-, B- and C-pillars help in this area; so do large sideview mirrors and height-adjustable seats. Those with a yen for drop tops should know that most convertibles we've tested offer poor rearward visibility when the top is up.
4. In-dash CD changer and/or satellite radio
For those moments when you want to bypass the radio and choose your own playlist, a CD changer comes in handy. And one located on the dash enables you to switch from one disc to another without having to take your eyes off the road. If you're willing to spring for the monthly fees, satellite radio — with its broad range of commercial-free stations — can go a long way toward keeping things fresh on your daily drive. If you have an extensive library of MP3s, look for a car that has an MP3-compatible CD player.
5. Steering wheel-mounted stereo controls
There'll be times when you'll feel the need to tweak the bass or crank up the volume while behind the wheel. Steering wheel-mounted stereo controls allow you to make these adjustments without taking your hands off the wheel or averting your eyes from the road ahead.
6. Controlled noise, vibration and handling
A noisy, bumpy ride is no fun on a long commute. When test-driving, pay attention to the amount of engine noise and the level of vibration the motor emits. Also, be aware of the wind noise bouncing off of the mirrors, A-pillars or the windshield. If the car has large wheels and tires, you can usually expect more in the way of road noise. For those who like a pillowlike ride, a softly sprung suspension setup will be the most comfortable and isolating. Just make sure the soft ride doesn't come at the expense of confident handling when you go around a corner or entrance ramp. By the same token, a car with a firm, sport-tuned suspension will provide the sharpest handling, but you should make sure the ride is going to be tolerable day in and day out. Most cars provide a compromise between a compliant ride and nimble handling.
7. Good fuel economy
High gas prices have made fuel economy an issue for most of us. If you're looking for a car that sips at the pump, a hybrid's your best bet. However, there are lots of other cars that offer great mileage as well. Check out our list of the Top 10 Most Fuel-Efficient Cars for 2004 for more information.
8. Well-designed cupholders and ample storage
That cup of morning coffee has to rest somewhere while your hands are on the wheel. Well-designed cupholders help you avoid scalding spills. Commuters also need places to store their knick-knacks — parking cards, loose change, sunglasses. Check out your potential purchase to see if it meets your needs regarding these amenities.
9. Two power points and a hands-free voice-activated phone system
Two power points in the dash (some cars have one in the center console) will allow you to charge a mobile phone as well as a laptop battery. A hands-free voice-activated phone system enables you to chat on your cell phone without letting go of the wheel.
10. A reasonably compact exterior
If your vehicle isn't doing double duty toting a family or hauling plywood, you probably don't need a truck or SUV. A car with a tidy exterior size is easier to maneuver, park and thread through traffic.