THE BEST VEHICLES IN RUSH-HOUR TRAFFIC
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Thu, Nov 18, 2010
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
LA CAR began in 1997 as an online publication that reflected the heavily car-laden culture of Los Angeles. Its content was and remains a bit off the beaten path. Its premiere article was the equally off-beat “Best Cars To Drive In Rush-Hour Traffic.” Fourteen years later, the topic remains relevant in our crowded city. Of course, the cars have changed, but so has the world around us. Gas prices have risen significantly since 1997. Combined with the recession that hit a couple of years back, many of us are forced to take a harder look at fuel economy and overall costs. Much of the attention has shifted to “green” cars. In 1997, this meant a small handful of tiny electric cars with very limited range, or two-seater partial hybrids (remember the original Honda Insight?). Today, “green” encompasses everything from “clean diesels” to full hybrid gas-electric cars in all sizes. A small but significant impact occurred in 2004, when California Assembly Bill 71 went into effect, 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. With this backdrop, we bring you the newest edition of this survey. After having lived with numerous vehicles this year and last, some definite opinions have formed about the best and worst cars to have at your disposal while being stuck during the peak hours of traffic. In alphabetical order, here are the best four-wheeled vehicles to drive in rush hour traffic:
AUDI A8 Sporty luxury sedans have a lot to offer in rush hour traffic. They tend to be smooth, quiet, powerful, and equipped with first-class sound systems—all great attributes when being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, luxury sedans tend to be large, making lane changes a bit of a handful. What makes the new A8 special is its all-around visibility. Instead of a thick, formal roof line, the A8 has a thin C pillar. It also lacks the hockey-stick design element that adorns some sporty luxury sedans. Thus, the A8 (as do the other Audi sedans) provides an added degree of visibility in the right rear corner—just enough to make a difference. The sporty controls of the new A8 make it feel like a smaller, more nimble car, which adds confidence in lane change maneuvers.
BMW 1-SERIES COUPE BMW makes very good large cars, but they also make a hella small car—and they’ve been doing so ever since the Model 2002 was introduced back in the 1960s. The BMW 1-Series Coupe has pretty good visibility, relative to all the hardtopped cars adorned with the spinning blue propeller emblem (you don’t want to drive a convertible with the top down in rush hour traffic, by the way). While bigger Bimmers may provide you with a smoother ride, none can maneuver the tight spots like the 1-Series. If you go with the 135i, you get a 300 horsepower, turbocharged in-line six that can get you in and out of rush hour traffic predicaments with the best of them.
HONDA FCX CLARITY If you’re one of the fortunate few that have been approved by Honda to lease this production fuel cell-charged electric car, you have the best vehicle on four wheels for rush hour traffic. Paramount among the reasons for this ranking is its pure electric operation. With its silent and combustion chamber-free operation, electric-powered cars are a more relaxing drive, and the Clarity is no exception. During its remarkably smooth acceleration, all you hear is a faint electric whirring sound, kind of like when George Jetson is tooling around in his space mobile. With the FCX Clarity, however, you get an electric car that has the room and comfort of a near-full size sedan. And since the FCX Clarity is classified as a zero emissions vehicle (ZEV), you’ve got the credentials for a single-occupant HOV lane sticker in California—meaning, you can travel in the carpool lanes without a carpool. USED HONDA CIVIC HYBRID WITH SINGLE-OCCUPANT HOV LANE STICKER It’s not a full hybrid design, but the gas motor does completely shut off when the car is stopped. And when the motor is off, one just feels less tense in traffic. If you happen to have a Honda Civic Hybrid with the HOV lane sticker, you’ve got two major reasons why this car is on this list. A third reason: The HCH transmission has a Sport mode. No one will confuse it for a sport sedan, but it does make the HCH a sportier drive than the average hybrid gas-electric car.
HONDA CIVIC GX WITH SINGLE-OCCUPANT HOV LANE STICKER Honda’s compressed natural gas-powered Civic GX performs much like a regular fossil fuel-sipping Civic, except that it’s range is shorter. To make up for that, Honda GX owners have purchased something called Phill, which converts your garage into a natural gas filling station. Honda pulled the plug on the company that made Phill, but there’s a new company promising to get production back up under the brand BRC FuelMaker. California offers tax breaks for the unit—and natural gas is substantially cheaper than regular fossil fuel. But the GX is on this list for one reason, and one reason only: its zero emissions vehicle status qualifies for a special, single-occupant HOV lane ZEV access sticker that (unlike the hybrid stickers) won’t expire anytime soon. And as colleague Dan Neil once pointed out (in so many words), the Civic GX—in the carpool lane—will blow the doors off of any Porsche that’s not in the carpool lane during rush hour traffic.
MINI COOPER S WITH 6-SPEED STEPTRONIC TRANSMISSION This may come as a shock to most consumers, but the tiny MINI Cooper is one of the best cars you can drive in rush hour traffic. It’s 360 degree panoramic glass provides fantastic visibility all around. Because of its short body, lane-changing opportunities are significantly more plentiful in this car. Add the turbocharged motor in the Cooper S and match it to the 6-speed BMW-spec Steptronic automatic transmission with sequential paddle shifters, and you’ve got a car (particularly in Sport mode) that can perform maneuvers on the highway that you wouldn’t dare do with larger, less agile, and more visibility-challenged vehicles. When you’re in the MINI Cooper, the freeway suddenly seems less crowded, and changing lanes is actually a bit of fun. Few other vehicles can make that claim.
USED (GEN 2) TOYOTA PRIUS WITH SINGLE-OCCUPANT HOV LANE STICKER Between 2004 and 2007, California issued 85,000 single-occupant HOV lane access stickers to owners of hybrid vehicles that the EPA rated at greater than 34 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. Only three hybrids qualified: The Honda Insight, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. Of these three, only the Toyota Prius is a full hybrid—meaning that it can operate in full electric mode under certain low-speed conditions. This ability makes for a more relaxed drive in stop-and-go traffic. There’s a sense of calm to the drive that only drivers of full-hybrid and pure electric cars share. If you happen to have a Prius with the special carpool access stickers, you have one of the best cars on four wheels for driving the highways and byways of Los Angeles in rush hour traffic—at least until the sticker expires on July 1, 2011.
VOLKSWAGEN GTI WITH DSG TRANSMISSION The GTI is every bit as agile as the Cooper, but less noisy and a tad more luxurious—attributes that bode well for rush hour traffic. The all-around visibility is not quite up to the Cooper (the GTI has a rather fat C pillar), but the short hatchback design still makes it one of the best for changing lanes in rush hour traffic. The ultra-quick DSG automatic transmission is even more responsive than the BMW Steptronic, and, yes, this direct-injection turbo-charged pocket rocket comes complete with some great paddle shifters. The GTI is one of the most fun cars you can buy under $30,000, and the fun extends to rush hour traffic. VOLKSWAGEN TIGUAN You may be wondering why there aren’t more SUVs on this list, and reason is because most have serious visibility issues—particularly in the right, rearward area. Most aren’t very maneuverable. Some handle and accelerate very well, but the large size of the vehicles are handicaps during lane changes. The Volkswagen Tiguan is an exception. Some have described it as a tall GTI—it has the tall seating position of a typical crossover, but also the turbocharged motor and suspension-tuning from the GTI. It’s also significantly shorter than the average crossover SUV—not so good if you value storage space, but great for inspiring some confidence during lane changes on the freeway.
VOLVO C30 WITH GEARTRONIC TRANSMISSION The littlest Volvo has one outstanding quality that catapults it onto this list: The best all-around visibility of any fixed roof automobile sold in this country. The visibility is even better than in a MINI Cooper, which has fantastic all-around visibility. The C30 has a side rear window that seems to wrap around to the rear, virtually eliminating the dreaded right rear blind spot. The rear window is even more impressive, as it goes well below the belt line. The T5 is the base hot rod version of the C30, while the R-Design provides more tweaks in the handling department. Volvo makes a very good 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, and both the T5 and R-Design come with the turbocharged version. The Geartronic automatic is the one to have for maneuvering in and out of rush traffic. The Volvo doesn’t handle the twisties quite as well as the GTI or Cooper S, but for handling lane changes in rush hour traffic, it’s more than up to the task. HONORABLE MENTIONS:
AUDI A3 TDI You may know it as the Green Car of the Year, but this shortest of all the Audis is almost as maneuverable as the GTI. It’s built off of the same platform and is just a tad longer than the GTI. While it’s turbo-direct injection clean diesel doesn’t put out quite the same number of horses, the TDI motor has gobs of low-end torque—a prized feature of any candidate for the best in rush hour traffic. Coupled with the S-tronic manu-matic transmission (Audi-speak for the dual-clutch DSG automatic), the A3 TDI makes the honorable mention list.
USED (GEN 2) FORD F-150 SVT LIGHTNING If one must commute in a truck, here's the pick for rush hour traffic: The second-generation Ford F-150 Lightning that ended production in 2004. The short cab and low bed translate to outstanding visibility for a truck. However, it's the SVT Lightning package that sets this machine apart from the rest: An SOHC 16-valve 5.4 L Triton engine with an Eaton supercharger for extraordinary low end torque and a heavy duty sport-orientated suspension to make it the closest a truck ever came to emulating a sport sedan.
HONDA ODYSSEY Minivans and large SUVs are not the best vehicles for maneuvering lane changes in high density traffic. However, there are moments when families need such vehicles, and there is none better for rush-hour traffic than the new 2011 Honda Odyssey. Besides the fact that it drives like a dream, the newest-generation Odyssey incorporates a reverse hockey stick design into its rearmost window pillar, allowing for good visibility in the right rear section of the vehicle (for a minivan). If you must have a high-occupancy vehicle for your commuting needs, this is the one to have. NISSAN CUBE Compact, upright, and good visibility mark Nissan’s interpretation of the box car. Most noteworthy: The Cube has wrap-around glasswork around the right rear corner. While not pillarless in that region, it still has good visibility where most upright vehicles (e.g., SUVs) have the poorest visibility. The Cube is no rocket when it comes to acceleration, but Nissan’s CVT (continuously variable transmission) works better than expected. SCION xB (first generation) The first-generation Scion xB—the one that started the box car craze—has unbelievably good visibility for an upright vehicle. Combine that with its compact dimensions, and you have a box car that does well for lane changes and slipping in and out of traffic. Alas, the second (current)-generation xB has grown considerably in length and girth, and now sports a visibility challenged, thick C-pillar. If you’re in the market for a recycled box car, consider the first-generation Scion xB. As with most of the box cars, however, don’t expect sports car acceleration or cornering. VOLKSWAGEN GOLF TDI The Volkswagen Golf TDI shares the same platform, DSG dual-clutch Tiptronic style transmission and high performance suspension componentry as the venerable GTI, but is fitted with the torque turbo-direct injection clean diesel that has powered two Green Car of the Year winners. This translates to a car that is almost as much fun on the freeway as a GTI—enough to earn it an honorable mention here.
PURE ELECTRIC AND FULL HYBRID VEHICLES Full hybrid vehicles can operate as a pure electric car under certain conditions—e.g., under moderate acceleration from a standing start and at low speeds. The silent operation of a full hybrid has a calming effect on driving in rush hour traffic that is absent with their non-hybrid, gas-powered counterparts. For this reason, almost any pure electric or full hybrid vehicle (not to be confused with partial hybrids) deserve honorable mention on this list. The number of mass production electric and full hybrids has been growing by leaps and bounds, but they now include: BMW ActiveHybrid 7 BMW X6 Hybrid Cadillac Escalade Hybrid Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid Fisker Karma (rear-wheel drive sporty plug-in hybrid) Ford Escape Hybrid Ford Fusion Hybrid GMC Sierra Hybrid GMC Yukon Hybrid Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Lexus GS 450h Lexus HS 250h Lexus LS 600h L Lexus RX 450h Mazda Tribute Hybrid Mercedes ML 450 Hybrid Mercury Mariner Hybrid Mercury Milan Hybrid Mini E Nissan Altima Hybrid Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid Toyota Camry Hybrid Toyota Highlander Hybrid Toyota Prius (still among the best, even without a sticker) Scheduled for arrive in MY2011: Chevrolet Volt (see Vehicles to Look Out For, below) Ford Focus Electric Hyundai Accent Hybrid Infiniti M35 Hybrid Lexus CT 200h Lincoln MKZ Hybrid Nissan Leaf (see Vehicles to Look Out For, below) Tesla Model S Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid VEHICLES TO LOOK OUT FOR There are vehicles coming down the pike that hold high promise as rush hour-worthy candidates:
NISSAN LEAF For 2011, Nissan will bring out the Leaf—a pure electric vehicle with a purported range of around 100 miles. With an overnight charge from the comfort of your garage, it’s just enough for most commuter trips. As a zero emissions vehicle (ZEV), the Leaf will qualify for single-occupant HOV lane access stickers in California. With the silent operation of pure electric drive, the Leaf promises to be one of the most serene drives on the market. CHEVROLET VOLT It’s not a pure electric vehicle—and it won’t qualify for single-occupant HOV lane access stickers just yet. But the 2011 Volt promises full-time electric drive for around 25-50 miles before the back-up gas motor kicks in. That’s more than any full hybrid gas-electric vehicle on the market today. The Volt is one of the sportier green cars around, taking turns like a relative to the Camaro, and providing surprising acceleration in power mode. Last, but not least, the graphic displays on the Volt will keep you plenty entertained.
THE BEST OF THE BEST AMTRAK, METROLINK/METRO LINE TRAINS We reserved the best for last: The Southland’s Amtrak, Metrolink, and Metro color line trains (the Goldline, Orangeline, Redline, Blueline, and Greenline) beat the pants off of anything on this list. The commute may end up being longer, but the time goes by quickly—particularly if you use the time to read, nap, or work on your laptop (yes, this article was completed, courtesy of the commuter trains). Commuter train passengers tend to be a helpful and supportive group. One group of commuters on the Riverside Metrolink line call themselves the Train Buddies Organization (TBO), and provide readings every Friday. Fellow passengers on Trains 403 and 404 quiet down to listen as police detectives, a nurse practitioner, a nursery school teacher, bankers, a geologist, an art gallery staffer, and civil servants read aloud. “You could hear a pin drop,” TBO poet-commuter Eva McDonough told Metrolink Matters. Last year, McDonough gathered the commuter rail poetry and haiku together for publication in a book entitled, “Traveling Through Rhyme.” If you daily commute runs anywhere close to these fine alternatives, you should give these seriously consideration as your main means of commuting to and from the office. - Roy Nakano Join us on Facebook at facebook.com/lacar.com