When Americans pivoted to working from home in 2020, the daily commute to the office became a stroll from the bedroom to a makeshift home office. Now, as offices start to reopen, employees must once again face the old normal of bumper-to-bumper traffic, endless red lights and sharing the road with drivers of varying competence. If you find yourself in need of a new vehicle to tackle the daily commute, a handful of common safety and convenience features are worth looking for.
Thankfully, these high-tech features need not require a high-end vehicle that strains the budget. We identify the key features to look for and round up the cheapest cars and SUVs that pack the features with a price tag of less than $30,000.
High-Tech Features to Look For
We narrowed down the cheapest cars and SUVs with commuter-friendly technology by choosing vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems (commonly abbreviated ADAS) that take the stress out of highway driving and stop-and-go traffic. Each vehicle we highlight is priced under $30,000, including two must-have features if they’re optional equipment detailed below. Each one also comes with additional technology that commuters may appreciate, though such features may also increase the price. When available, we included upgrades that carry even more of that tech yet still meet our $30,000 threshold, but you’ll want to choose the vehicle and trim level best suited for your commute and budget.
It also bears mention that no system in any U.S. passenger vehicle sold today relieves the driver of paying attention to vehicle surroundings; you should always be ready to brake, accelerate and steer as situations necessitate.
Must-Have Feature No.1: Adaptive Cruise Control Down to a Stop
Adaptive cruise control is designed to take the fatigue out of long highway commutes by controlling your vehicle’s speed and maintaining a preset distance from the car in front. While automakers offer some form of adaptive cruise control on most new vehicles as standard or optional equipment, not all such systems function all the way down to a stop; some cut out below a minimum speed, like 35 or 40 mph. Adaptive cruise control down to a stop enables your vehicle to brake in traffic down to a full halt, and most — but not all — such systems can hold the vehicle until traffic resumes.
Must-Have Feature No. 2: Lane-Centering Steering Down to a Stop
Lane-centering steering is often confused with lane departure steering assist, but the two features are not interchangeable (despite many automakers marketing one type or the other as lane keep assist, or some variation of that language). Lane departure steering assist works by reading lane markings and pinballing your vehicle back into the lane when it senses you moving toward the markings. Alternatively, lane centering can track such markings or the vehicle in front, or both, and actively center your vehicle in its lane. Most lane-centering systems now work from a stop up to highway speeds, though some systems work only within a certain span of that.
Almost all such systems require you to keep your hands on the wheel, keeping tabs on that by detecting how much steering force you apply. A handful of cars now offer hands-free lane centering, but all such examples are relatively expensive. Lane centering in all examples below requires hands on the wheel.
Additional Tech Features for Commuting
Along with the two must-have ADAS features described above, we call out the important safety, convenience and multimedia tech that can be found in each affordable car. These include traffic-sign recognition, which reads road signs and displays the information on the instrument cluster; blind spot warning systems; phone connectivity and wireless charging; and surround-view cameras to help navigate busy office parking lots. (We won’t call out collision warning and automatic braking systems; while important, they come on the vast majority of cars these days and will become virtually standard within the next calendar year.) While some of these features may require an upgrade to the next trim level or an additional options package, we make sure the total vehicle price still comes in under $30,000 (all prices include the destination charge).
Cheapest High-Tech Cars
It may come as a surprise that Toyota’s cheapest car is packed with standard tech features that make commuting bearable (though still not enjoyable). The 2021 Corolla sedan tops our list thanks to Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0, which comes standard across all models. The suite of driver-assist technology includes our two must-have features with adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering on models equipped with automatic transmissions; both systems work from highway speeds down to a stop. (Two trim levels, the SE and SE Apex, offer manuals without lane centering or stop-and-go adaptive cruise.) Road-sign assist is bundled into the suite, too. At a starting price of $21,020, the 2021 Corolla L sedan comes with a 7-inch touchscreen compatible with wired Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa.
Upgrading to the LE or XLE can add a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, a larger 8-inch touchscreen in place of the 7-inch unit and the option to purchase a connectivity package for multimedia upgrades like wireless phone charging and a premium stereo.
- Corolla L: $21,020
- Corolla LE: $21,470
- Corolla XLE: $25,420 ($27,135 with Connectivity Package)
The runner-up in our list of high-tech cars with low price tags is the redesigned 2021 Hyundai Elantra. The Elantra received tech upgrades for 2021, including wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity and additional new standard safety features as part of Hyundai’s SmartSense safety suite. The Elantra’s SEL trim has lane-centering steering that works down to a stop as standard equipment. It also comes with blind spot and rear cross-traffic warning systems. Missing from the SEL trim is standard adaptive cruise control down to a stop, but opting into Hyundai’s convenience package for $950 adds Smart Cruise Control with Stop & Go, as well as wireless phone charging.
The Elantra’s Limited trim gets all the safety features above as standard content and adds Highway Driving Assist, which can adjust speed for specific location and road. You also get parking collision avoidance assist and a larger 10.25-inch touchscreen compared to the SEL’s 8-inch display. Interestingly, Hyundai pulls the plug on wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay for its top trim level, so you’ll have to bring a cable to connect your phone to the multimedia system. The Elantra Limited starts at $26,455, giving you plenty of wiggle room under the $30,000 bar.
- Elantra SEL: $21,905 ($22,855 with Convenience Package)
- Elantra Limited: $26,455
Thanks to Subaru’s EyeSight suite of standard driver-assist features and affordable pricing, the 2021 Legacy lands toward the top of our high-tech cars list. Subaru bundles the two must-have features into its advanced adaptive cruise control with lane-centering capability that monitors lane markings and makes steering adjustments. The Legacy’s Base trim offers connectivity in the form of a dual-screen 7.0-inch multimedia system that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
If a larger infotainment display and blind spot detection are features you can’t pass up, the Legacy’s next trim up, called Premium, offers a multimedia navigation package that adds $2,595 to the trim’s base price. The upgrade adds a navigation-equipped 11.6-inch touchscreen,, blind spot detection with lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Wireless phone charging can be added as an a la carte option for an additional $259, bringing the grand total to $28,924.
- Legacy Base: $23,820
- Legacy Premium: $26,070 ($28,665 with multimedia navigation package)
Coming off a recent redesign, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata is a sleek, tech-savvy sedan that accommodates the daily drive to work. Unlike the Elantra covered above, the 2021 Sonata’s base SE trim is loaded with all the standard safety features we recommend for commuters; this means moving up a trim level is purely optional. Standard adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering, both of which work to a stop, in the Sonata SE check our must-have boxes.
Moving up to the SEL trim level adds blind spot collision avoidance assist and rear cross-traffic collision alert. The SEL can be upgraded with a convenience package for $2,200, which enables wireless charging and adds Hyundai’s digital key to let Android users unlock and start the vehicle using their phones. Both the SE and SEL feature an 8-inch touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto along with HD radio, but choosing the SEL adds Hyundai’s Blue Link connected car services.
- Sonata SE: $24,955
- Sonata SEL: $26,805 ($29,005 with Convenience Package)
Efficiency isn’t the only benefit of the 2021 Toyota Prius when it comes to long commutes (although the EPA-rated 49 to 56 mpg combined is an undeniable perk). The Prius also happens to be an affordable, feature-packed car even in its base L Eco trim. Like the Corolla, safety tech including lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control, both from a stop up to highway speeds, come standard in all 2021 Prius models. The Prius L Eco also offers road-sign assist as part of the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of accident-avoidance tech.
Upgrading to the Prius LE model adds features like parking sensors with reverse automatic braking (forward automatic braking is standard). A blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert also comes in the LE. Upgrading to the Prius LE does not change the size or features of the touchscreen in the L Eco, which measures 7 inches and has Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa.
- Prius L Eco: $25,520
- Prius LE: $26,730
Cheapest High-Tech SUVs
An SUV can make an excellent commuter vehicle, especially if it’s filled with standard advanced driver-assist technology at a bargain price. Toyota leads the pack among cheapest high-tech SUVs with its 2021 C-HR. The subcompact SUV not only stands out with its quirky exterior, but also its tech features thanks to Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.5. The suite comes standard in the base LE trim and includes lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control that both work down to a stop, plus road-sign assist. Moving up a trim level to the XLE adds blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert.
Both the C-HR’s LE and XLE models have an 8-inch touchscreen with standard Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa.
- C-HR LE: $22,770
- C-HR XLE: $24,805
Subaru’s SUVs often evoke thoughts of weekend camping trips, but the automaker’s subcompact crossover also accommodates the daily commute. An update for 2020 gave the Crosstrek standard EyeSight on all models equipped with a continuously variable automatic transmission. The Crosstrek gains advanced adaptive cruise control with lane centering, both down to a stop for 2021, as well as a lead-vehicle start alert. All CVT-equipped models come with a rear-seat reminder, which notifies the driver if a child or pet is left in the backseat — an important feature if the long commute ends with a daycare pickup.
Upgrading from the Base to the Premium trim adds $1,050. A $1,995 option package on the Premium bundles a power moonroof, blind spot detection with lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Both the Base and Premium models have a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
- Crosstrek Base: $24,645 (with CVT)
- Crosstrek Premium: $25,696 (with CVT), ($27,690 with option package)
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 boasts all the safety tech of the preceding Toyota vehicles on our list, but this SUV doesn’t require moving up a trim level to add a blind spot warning system thanks to a standalone option for the feature. By Toyota’s specs, the RAV4 offers more space than the Corolla, Prius and CH-R to fit all the gear for your workday (or the weekend getaway). The base trim, LE, offers Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which comes with adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering, both down to a stop, as well as and road sign assist.
A blind spot warning system with rear cross traffic alert is an optional feature for the LE which can be added for an additional $590. The base RAV4’s infotainment is accessed via a standard 7-inch touchscreen with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility.
- RAV4 LE: $27,425 ($28,015 with blind spot warning system)
With more space than the Crosstrek, the 2021 Outback’s Base trim still slides in under our $30,000 cap with a healthy dose of standard safety and convenience tech. The Outback brings Subaru’s EyeSight suite of safety features as standard content across all models. Adaptive cruise control with lane centering down to a stop is included. All models of the 2021 Outback come with a standard EyeSight Assist Monitor, which projects warnings and system status onto the windshield.
The Subaru Outback’s Base model sports dual 7-inch multimedia screens with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
- Outback Base: $27,845
The redesigned 2021 Rogue is filled with commuter-friendly safety features by way of the automaker’s enhanced ProPilot Assist and Nissan Safety Shield 360. The compact SUV comes standard with both systems in its SV trim, one level above the base S. For less than $30,000, the SV’s ProPilot Assist covers the must-have ADAS features for commuters, combining adaptive cruise control with lane centering down to a stop. The Safety Shield 360 system includes blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert and reverse automatic emergency braking. The Rogue SV also offers the benefit of a standard 360-degree camera system for easier parking after a long commute.
Nissan’s infotainment system is accessed on an 8-inch touchscreen and comes with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. A $250 wireless phone charger can be added for plug-free power on the road.
- Rogue SV: $28,690
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