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Published on Tue, Feb 8, 2005

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


By ROY NAKANO This journey began after coming to the realization that the bulk of my driving is spent in rush-hour traffic. Like most people in Los Angeles, I commute from one community to work in another. As consolation, I do get the opportunity (from time-to-time) to commute in vehicles favorably reviewed by the car buff magazines. The cars are great fun on the weekends, but not always the greatest cars for driving in rush-hour traffic. None of the magazine tests address the car's comfort in rush-hour traffic. Indeed, the cars reviewed are often equipped with manual transmissions. Never mind that 95 percent of drivers in the USA own and prefer vehicles with automatic transmissions (okay, we admit that some of the LA Car staff are part of that remaining five percent). The Best Cars To Drive In Rush-Hour Traffic was the first article to appear in LA Car. Since traffic in Los Angeles hasn't gotten any better, the topic is every bit as relevant today as it was when we first published it. Although the topic remains the same, the selections have changed. Much of this has to do with changes that have occurred in the transportation world. For one, California Assembly Bill 71 was passed, allowing single-occupancy driving in high-occupancy vehicle (carpool) lanes for certain cars. Driving in the carpool lane almost always beats driving in the other lanes during high density time periods. Secondly, "green" cars have gotten a lot better. A few years ago, electric vehicles were confined to a driving distance of 70 miles before needing recharging. Today, hybrid technology allows for cars to exceed the range of conventional cars before needing refueling. Which brings us to the current edition of this survey. After having driven numerous vehicles this year and last, I've formed some definite opinions about the best and worst cars to drive while being stuck during the peak hours of traffic. In narrowing this list, I left off some obvious choices. Riding in a chauffeur-driven limousine beats just about anything when it comes to being stuck in traffic. However, if you could afford to have one on a daily basis, you wouldn't be reading this article. Similarly, having the opportunity to drive a different vehicle every week is certainly more interesting than being stuck with the same old wheels for several years. However, that's an option only available to certain automotive journalists. This article has the more conventional commuter in mind. However, that doesn't mean you have to be stuck with boring transportation, as the following reveals.

THE WORST CARS Before I reveal the best cars to drive in rush hour traffic, it's instructive to know which are the worst:

No. 5 - Mazda RX-8 This high-revving sports car has captured the hearts of car enthusiast magazines. It's ability to maneuver a tight road course belies its four-door design. None of this, however, does any good in high density traffic. Its lack of any torque off-the-line contributed to having this stick-shift car stall on more than one occasion. This car took too much effort to drive in rush hour situations. Ultimately, it proved to be a miserable car to drive in anything other than wide open stretches. No. 4 - Chevrolet Corvette There is certainly no lack of low-end torque here. We drove the car equipped with a manual six-speed transmission, which can provide even more low-end torque. But the one's we tried have a two-gear lockout feature for around-town driving. It is annoying around town; it is an absolute nuisance during rush-hour traffic. Fortunate for commuters, most Corvettes are equipped with automatic transmissions. Unfortunate for commuters, the Corvette has a height problem galore. It is very difficult to see above the dashboard and hood, let alone the traffic around you. No. 2 (tie) - Mazda Miata & Toyota MR2 Spyder If you lowered the top of a Miata or MR2 Spyder, you can combine two of the worst features for rush hour traffic driving. If you leave the top up, then you still have all the problems described under "Lowered Hondas and Acuras." They also have the problem of being so small that some people have difficulty seeing you. One of our staff members has a daughter who acquired a Miata. Within 10 days of buying the car, she was clipped by someone in a tall SUV who didn't see her. With SUVs and trucks dominating the freeways, this concern is even more of a problem than before.

To see the Hummer & the hybrid battle it out, click here. No. 1 - Hummer H2 SUV With the high seating position and the ability to look over the tops of the traffic in front of you, SUVs (sport utility vehicles) seem to be a natural to make the "best" list. The forward view does lend the sensation of additional security. However, because of the height of SUVs, the view to the right rear is often obfuscated. You just never know if the mirrors and head-turning will catch that low-profile sports car when making a lane change to the right. Nowhere is that uneasiness more felt than in the Hummer H2 SUV. With the Hummer, you turn your signal on, slowly move to the right, and hope you're not about to crush one of those low-slung sports cars. Honorable Mention Convertibles With Their Tops Down To some people, this may seem like a no-brainer. But in Los Angeles, it's not all that uncommon to see people driving convertibles on LA freeways with their top down. We've had the opportunity to travel the freeways in a variety of convertibles with the top down. Our conclusion: Between the enhanced exhaust fumes and the brake dust, driving in this mode for extended periods should qualify as an alternative to doctor-assisted suicide. Lowered Hondas and Acuras Driving in a lowered Honda Civic Si or Acura RSX Type S may be the coolest way to arrive at an LA high school ball game, but it's not the most practical mode of transportation in rush-hour traffic. Since they are low to the ground, your view of the traffic around you is limited. Many of these modern-day hot rods have their suspensions stiffened (along with being lowered), and have their exhaust pipes modified to increase performance (as well as noise). Neither of these mods bode well on the freeways. Another consideration: Most of these high-revving imports are lacking in low-end torque. Next up: The best.

As the saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. That applies to choices for rush hour traffic vehicles as well. No one type of vehicle has a lock in this category. There are good choices to be had in both car and truck configurations. Let's start with: THE ISOLATION CHAMBER There is nothing like the calm serenity of a luxury cruiser as it floats along the freeway. For decades, people have commented on Cadillac and Lincoln drivers, and how they seemed oblivious to their surroundings. It may not be the most alert way to travel, but it may provide the best relief for high blood pressure and traffic-induced tension. Part and parcel to a great ride is a great sound system. Who needs a home stereo, when you already spend more time in your car than in your living room? A high quality sound system does absolute wonders for cutting down the apparent time in traffic. Since affordability is an important concern for most commuters, a used, late-model luxury cruiser can be a particularly good buy:

Audi A8 Audi's latest A8 may be the best all-around luxury car south of the six figure range. In rush hour traffic, it performs very well, but a couple of others do it better. Its sound system keeps it from being at the top of the list. The Bose system is very good, but in our humble opinion, it doesn't match the Mark Levinson system in the Lexus, nor the premium system in its sister car, the Volkswagen Phaeton. Otherwise, its interior ranks second only to the Phaeton, and its all-wheel drive and aluminum space frame design make it a great handling luxury sedan. BMW 7-Series When it comes to handling, the BMW 7-Series has no equal in its class. On the tracks of Willow Springs Raceway, the agility of the 7-Series is an eye-opening experience. It handles better than any luxury car has a right to. In rush hour traffic on Highway 5, however, it falls short. The complexity of its i-Drive controls is annoying. Fumbling with the i-Drive knob is the last thing one wants to do when trying to maneuver traffic. Even the turn signal control on the 7-Series is annoying - an instance where a manufacturer decided to fix something that isn't broken. Like some of the other recent BMW designs, the interior aesthetics are disappointing. Spending all that time behind the wheel, it makes it that much nicer if your interior surroundings are better. Despite its idiosyncrasies, the BMW still makes for a good rush hour cruiser. It'll just take some getting used to. Lexus LS400 Think used car here. When the LS400 first appeared in late 1989, it was the quietest car sold in America. The car was so smooth and quiet, it sent the other luxury car manufacturers back to the drawing boards. The LS400 also marked the first time that a Nakamichi sound system was offered as an option on a production vehicle. The Lexus-Nakamichi system in the LS400 was the best-sounding factory car stereo system money could buy (head and shoulders above the Bose systems available at that time, and the equal of the Mark Levinson premium sound systems now found on new Lexus automobiles). If you can find a used LS400 with the optional Nakamichi system, you've got a great but affordable vehicle for rush-hour traffic. Lexus LS430 Lexus has dialed out some of the pillowly soft ride of the original LS400, making the newer LS430 a better driver's car. The 430 also has significantly more torque, making it a better car to zip in and out of lanes. If you're lucky enough to have an LS430 with active cruise control (which senses when you're getting too close to the car in front of you) and the Mark Levinson premium sound system, you've got the makings of one of the best cars to drive in rush hour traffic. Lexus GS This one's a personal favorite of Chuck Dapoz. "Wholly different personality from the LS. It's well balanced, nimble, comfortable, and not too big (roughly the same size as a BMW 5-Series). I drive a six-year-old one, and it is the best car I've ever owned." Given that he also owns a new E-Class Mercedes and has had the entire press fleet at his disposal, that's saying quite a bit. Lincoln Town Car This is more of an honorable mention. At low speeds, the Town Car is the proverbial isolation chamber. In this mode, the ride is like floating on clouds. The formal roof line blocks off much of the rearward visibility, so you don't have to be bothered with looking at the traffic around you ('just kidding). The large size of the vehicle, however, makes it difficult to maneuver in and out of traffic. Unfortunately, much of the pleasure is lost at higher speeds, where the ride deteriorates and the noise level goes up. At higher speeds, the Town Car is no smoother nor quieter than many smaller cars. The Soundmark Audiophile sound system in the Ultimate and Ultimate L versions of the Town Car include a subwoofer and trunk-mounted CD changer, by the way. Mercedes-Benz S-Class This is the benchmark of luxury cars. In rush hour traffic, it delivers the goods. On the other hand, the current generation of this car has been out for a while, and it's starting to get long-in-the-tooth. The sound system, while good, is no match for the best in this class. The interior is better than the aforementioned 7-Series, but not quite up the standards set by the A8 and Phaeton.

Volkswagen Phaeton Where most people do their driving - on crowded streets and busy highways - this may be the best vehicle this side of the $100,000 mark. Whereas Lexus provides the embodiment of the cocoon car in its LS430, Volkswagen's provides a bank vault on wheels with its Phaeton. VW took great pains to give the Phaeton the most structurally-rigid cabin and chassis it could make, and the dividends pay off in the passenger compartment of the car. The inside of a Phaeton is one of the best places to be in rush hour traffic. It's interior is equaled by no one in its class. Couple this with the best factory sound system we've ever heard, brings the Phaeton to the top of this list. What's Not On The List A number of cars fit the isolation chamber profile that didn't make the grade on this list: Maybach (too long), Rolls Royce Phantom (too big a blind spot at the rear right quarter), Bentley Continental GT (ditto), Bentley Arnage (too old; sub-par audio system), and others (usually bumped because the audio system didn't make the grade). However, the isolation chamber is not the only approach to rush hour trafficking. Next up: The Green Revolution

THE GREEN REVOLUTION Green cars - those that carry a pretense of environmental friendliness - have come a long way in recent years. It wasn't too long ago that General Motors and others flirted with electric vehicles. Alas, their range between battery recharging severely limited the distance once could travel. Today, hybrid technology allows for cars to exceed the range of conventional cars before needing refueling. In California, Assembly Bill 71 was passed, allowing single-occupancy driving in high-occupancy vehicle (carpool) lanes for certain cars. These factors and others have yielded a new generation of green cars that make the list of the best cars to drive in rush hour traffic: Honda Civic GX Until the Federal government allows California to carry out its special hybrid vehicle legislation, the only new car allowed in the carpool lanes without a carpool is the compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered Honda Civic GX. The Civic GX runs pretty like like an ordinary Civic - except that the engine in the GX has been named the cleanest internal combustion chamber engine on the planet by the Environmental Protection Agency. The biggest drawback to owning a GX is that not all gas stations offer compressed natural gas. Compounding this problem is the mileage range of the GX, which is not as high as that of an ordinary Civic. For this reason, the Civic GX has been confined for years as an institutional fleet vehicle. That's about to change, however. Honda has now made it easier for consumers to buy the GX (see the link below). Honda says it will also be easier to own and operate one, with the soon-to-be introduced Phill-a home-refueling appliance. Manufactured by FuelMaker Corporation, the device promises to allow refueling of the GX from the comfort of your home garage. For more information on the GX and on the Phill-a home-refueling device, check out the Civic GX site.

Toyota Prius The Toyota Prius makes the "best car in rush hour traffic" list, but not because of its green credentials. The Prius makes it because it's one of the most entertaining vehicles on the road. Between its ability to operate in pure electric mode at low speeds, to its graphic energy and consumption displays, to its auto-shutdown operation at idle and auto-start function when accelerating - the Prius never fails to entertain. The Prius' electronic acceleration, steering, braking, and shifting also makes it one of the easiest cars to drive. During rush hour traffic, this translates to a very low-effort driving machine. Last, but not least, the car's quiet and vibration-free operation during stops and low-speed, pure electric drives has a remarkable calming effect - a definite plus while cattling through the hustle and bustle of rush hour traffic.

Volkswagen Passat TDI Some may question the presence of a diesel-motored vehicle car on a green car list, but the high-fuel mileage Volkswagen Passat TDI deserves to be on this list. The Passat TDI (turbocharged direct injection) is a diesel-engine vehicle not to be confused with the noisy, smelly, and dirty diesels of yesteryear. The Europeans in general and Volkswagen in particular have made great strides in diesel technology. The new Passat TDI benefits from VW's latest pumpe düse (pump injectors) design, and is a quantum leap forward from even the TDI design currently offered in the Golf, New Beetle, and Jetta. The 2.0 liter engine in the TDI cranks out a whopping 247 pounds-feet of torque. That's almost equal to the 5.0 liter V8 Mustang GTs of Vanilla Ice fame. However, in the Passat TDI, it's delivered at a much more instantaneous 1900 rpm - that's just a little over idle! This makes the TDI a great car to dart in and out of rush hour traffic. Add to that the TDI's ability to go 25-30 percent farther on a gallon of gas than its four-cylinder, gas-engine counterpart, and you begin to understand why it's on this list. The downside to the Passat TDI is that its only offered in 45 of the Union's 50 states. Although certain aspects of the TDI engine are very low in pollutants, five of the states (including California) bar its sale. If you want an excellent family sedan that gets really good gas mileage, is fun to drive, and you're lucky enough to live in the 45 states where the car is sold, take a serious look at the Passat TDI.

What's Not On The List Both the Honda Civic Hybrid and Insight need the internal combustion engine to drive at all times, and the electric motor serves to assist the IC engine in acceleration, hill-climbing, etc. Without the ability to run as a pure electric car at low speeds, the Honda hybrids drive too much like ordinary cars to make this list. That can all change if the Federal government grants California the ability to allow certain single-occupant hybrids into the carpool lanes (see "Hybrids in the Carpool Lane (Without a Carpool)"). If that happens, both the Civic Hybrid and Insight automatically make the list. Next up: SUVs

SUVs The popularity of SUVs (sport utility vehicles) appears to have reached an all-time high. Nowhere is this more evident than on the crowded streets and highways of Anytown, USA. They account for roughly half the vehicles on the road. With the high seating position and the ability to look over the tops of the traffic in front of you, SUVs seem to be an obvious choice for rush hour traffic. The high forward view does allow you to see what's going on with the traffic flow beyond the vehicle immediately in front of you. The problem with many SUVs is that their height creates a blind spot to the right rear of the vehicle. You checked the mirrors and you headed your head, but are you sure you caught that low-slung Miata as you make the lane change to the right? Another factor to consider with SUVs that many are truck-based designs. Despite the sport utility nomenclature, these vehicles, by-and-large, are anything but sporty. On the contrary, a good many offer a duller driving experience than their car counterparts, and some can feel a little more tipsy around corners and curves. With the aforementioned factors taken into consideration, this list of the best SUVs for rush hour traffic is narrowed considerably:

Audi allroad 4.2L The Audi allroad is one of the most car-like 'utes around. That's because it's really a car (the A6 wagon), fortified to handle light off-road duty. Like all Audis, it's a work of art, lavished with one of the nicest interiors you'll ever find. If you want more height on the highway, you can dial it in via the allroad's hydraulic system. The 4.2L is fitted with Audi's formidable V8 engine, which translates into instantaneous acceleration on command. Combine all this with the excellent visibility all around, and you've got one of the best cars for rush hour traffic. BMW X5 4.4i BMW has had its share of recalls and teething problems with the X5, but they seem to have finally gotten all the kinks out. Moreover, they've steadily improved this "sports activity vehicle" to the point where it maintains its status as a benchmark for on-road SUV handling and performance. True, the BMW sedan counterpart performs even better. However, the height elevation of the X5, coupled with the improvements found in the latest version of the 4.4i V8-powered model, makes this a particularly good rush hour choice. Cadillac SRX The interior leaves a bit to be desired for a luxury 'ute, but the SRX delivers in the on-road handling and performance departments. For maximum enjoyment, opt for the 4.6-liter V8 with the Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension. It'll make the SRX comparable to the X5 and FX35/45 around corners and curves. Ford Escape Hybrid The Escape Hybrid makes this list not because of its eco-friendliness. It makes it because its pure hybrid electric and gas motor design translates into a vehicle that's significantly more entertaining that the other small SUVs that flock the freeways. Like the Prius, the Escape Hybrid can operate in pure electric mode at low speeds. That translates to an unusually quiet operation, which is accentuated by the fact that the vehicle shuts off at stops. As only those who've driven a hybrid know, this really lends a sense of calm to the commute. The consumption and energy displays are an entertaining option for this vehicle. Acceleration is about comparable to a V6 (the Escape Hybrid uses an in-line four motor). Visibility is good all around. Best of all, the Escape Hybrid looks to be considerable less expensive than the other SUV hybrid choices from Toyota and Lexus. Infiniti FX35/FX45 Take the platform from the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe, design the vehicle primarily for on-road driving, and you've got the makings of a great SUV for rush hour traffic. The FX is another very car-like SUV, with cornering and overall handling that belies its SUV exterior. The only drawback is its visibility toward the right rear of the vehicle - a common problem with SUVs. The FX makes this list by virtue of its stellar performance in the other essential categories. Porsche Cayenne S/Cayenne Turbo When Porsche and Volkswagen teemed up to develop their debut SUVs, they aimed for an almost impossible goal: To make the best SUV for both on-road and off-road use. They almost succeeded. Both vehicles set new standards for their respective classes. Of the two, the Porsche Cayenne is tuned for better handling than the Touareg, which is already a good handling SUV. In order to maintain its off-road prowess, they had to fortify the chassis for extra stiffness. That, in turn, makes the vehicles on the heavy side. Porsche then maintained the on-road prowess by stuffing some mighty motors into the Cayenne. If you can afford them, you'll be hard put to find any comparable vehicles to the Cayenne S and Cayenne Turbo for both on-road and off-road performance.

Subaru Forester 2.5 XT Here's another SUV that benefits in on-road performance due to its car-like design. This tall station wagon-like design has been a favorite of consumer publications when compared with other small SUVs. What makes the XT model stand out is its big and beefy turbocharged motor. The 2.5 liter, 210 horsepower four-cylinder engine puts out 235 foot pounds of torque, making this a great SUV to dart in and out of traffic. The styling is typically Subaru unique. But, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - and there are plenty of owners that will attest to its beauty in rush hour traffic. Toyota Highlander Hybrid The normally-aspired Toyota Highlander is a good but rather dull SUV - even more dull than the Camry that it's based on. We've had the fortune to drive the new hybrid version of the Highlander - and it's better in almost every respect. Not only does it accelerate quicker, it also handles better. In common with the Prius and Escape Hybrid, the Highlander can operate in full electric mode at low speeds, which translates to a smoother and quieter drive. Only at full acceleration does the Highlander Hybrid sound rather noisy - a byproduct of its continuously variable transmission. We haven't driven the Lexus counterpart yet (the RX400h). However, if it's similar to the Highlander Hybrid, you can bet that it'll make this list when it appears in showrooms next year. Volkswagen Touareg V8/V10 TDI The Volkswagen Touareg is built off of the same platform as the Porsche Cayenne, and shares much of its on-road and off-road handling prowess with the more expensive Porsche product. In an interesting turn of events, the Volkswagen version has a much nicer-looking and more luxurious interior than the Porsche. The Touareg is offered in three engines, but we'd choose either the V8 or the V10 TDI. The V8 Touareg, with its six-speed automatic transmission, accelerates with the best of them. The V10 TDI (sold in 45 of the states) is even better - exhibiting the kind of low-end torque that can pull out tree stumps.

Next up: Trucks

TRUCKS Like SUVs, trucks enjoy a high seating position and the ability to look over the tops of the traffic in front of you. Unlike SUVs, trucks usually don't have the blind spot to the right rear of the vehicle. Unfortunately, trucks, by and large, ride like trucks. Nowhere is this more evident than in the smaller pickups, which are generally stiffly sprung to allow them to do their principal duty - i.e., haul a load. The worst example of this is the outgoing Nissan Frontier 4X4 quad cab, which has a ride that can make your teeth chatter on parts of the 710 freeway. Still, improvements are being made, and there are a couple of trucks that make the rush hour traffic test:

Ford F-150 4-Door SuperCrew Lariat The new Ford F-150 sets a new standard among full-size pickups, and the Lariat has the nicest interior of them all. It sets a new standard for creature comforts. The ride quality won't be confused with a Lexus, but has one of the best rides you'll find in a pickup truck. The 5.4-liter engine has good but not outstanding acceleration. Still, it's V8 smooth, with adequate passing power. Nissan Titan Crew Cab SE It doesn't have the interior creature comforts of the F-150 Lariat, but the Titan has a mighty motor. Its standard 5.6-liter engine provides outstanding acceleration. Good enough to give you the confidence to dart in and out of traffic. Both ride quality and handling are better than average for a pickup truck. What's Not On The List Cadillac Escalade EXT (too many blind spots), Lincoln Mark LT (hasn't been tested, but looks promising), small pickups (worse than average ride quality, but we'll be testing the new Frontier and Tacoma to see they're better).

Next up: Those that defy categories, and the best of the best.

THE BEST OF THE BEST All of the vehicles that made this list are outstanding for driving in rush hour traffic. However, if winners have to be picked from each category, this is how it looks: No. 5 - Nissan Titan Crew Cab SE (best truck) Its interior is not quite up to the standards set by the new Ford F-150 Lariat, but the outstanding performance of the Titan's V8 is trumps the Ford. It's enough to dart in and out of traffic, and the Titan does so with a decent ride. No. 4 - Toyota Prius (second best green car but 4th overall) If the Feds ever allow the state to have single-occupant hybrids in the carpool lane, this car will shoot right up to No. 1. Even without that incentive, the Prius is an excellent rush hour traffic vehicle. It's one of the easiest cars to drive. That's because its electric steering, electric gear shift, and electric motors contribute to requiring very low effort to move around. To top it off, if the traffic gets slower, the car's on-board display will let you know that your gas mileage gets better. No. 3 - Audi allroad 4.2L (best SUV) With its A6 platform, mighty 4.2-liter V8 motor, and height-adjustable suspension, the Audi allroad is the only show in town that combines the best attributes of SUVs and cars for rush hour traffic purposes. No. 1 (tie) - Volkswagen Phaeton & Honda Civic GX Volkswagen Phaeton (best isolation chamber) Building the most structurally rigid cabin has its advantages. So does having the best sound system. Volkswagen's new Phaeton has both. Honda Civic GX (best green car) As a result of current California law, the compressed natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX is the only new car that qualifies for single-occupant access in the carpool lanes. The governor just signed a bill that will give the Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Insight, and Toyota Prius the same access. However, the Feds need to give the nod. If they do, the advantage will go to the new Prius. Until then, it's the GX with a huge advantage. Wait, There's More There are a couple of cars that don't quite fit the aforementioned profiles, but they certainly deserve to be on the list:

Chrysler 300C This is truly one of the great bargains of the year. Where else can you get a rear-wheel drive car with full-independent suspension based on the Mercedes E-Class, and a 'Hemi' engine for under $35,000? Okay, the Dodge Magnum can deliver the same, but it's rearward visibility is a bit frightening. We think the 300C has good visibility - at least for lane changes. The ride is firmer than an isolation chamber, but the mighty V8 reaps rewards when zipping in and out of traffic. Mini Cooper Nothing can dart in and out of traffic like a Mini Cooper. Not only does it provide go-kart-like handling and corning, the Cooper has outstanding visibility all around. It's enough to inspire confidence while making lane changes in rush hour traffic. That's the whole list, and I'm sticking to it - at least until the next great rush hour traffic vehicle comes along.

Editor's Note: Parts of this article first appeared as a running series in the LA Car Blog.

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