We went out and drove a lot of cars, and I'm back with a few updates. We drove the 2013 civic, Ford fusion, Ford focus hatch, mazda 3 hatch, GTI, honda fit, and Jetta SE.
The fusion was OK, just didn't seem the greatest choice for him. Mazda 3 seemed very jarring and a bit too stiff suspension for his liking as well. Fusion is a bit expensive and bigger than he liked, so all those were out.
He went in set on a civic, and was pretty much ready to go on buying one. I was pushing for the GTI, but it was big higher mileage and older. The civic was somewhere around $16.5 for the 2013 with 12k miles. Not bad.
We decided to give it all some thought over lunch, and thought it would be best to shop around after Car Max and check out the dealerships. The first stop: used Honda dealership. Typical scumbag salesman without much interest in being engaging, and he got him to try out the fit but it's too small and not really to my friends' liking.
We left there, and I pushed again for him to try looking for a GTI more to his liking, as the civic was downright boring in my opinion, and the inside was less than appealing. At the Volkswagen dealership, we didn't find any affordable GTI's, though we did see a really affordable 2011 Jetta. The Jetta seems to get a bad wrap lately, mostly because it is somewhat slow and the interior isn't as nice as it could be, but the interior is still way above a civic in my opinion. The model of interest is a 2011 Jetta SE with the 2.5L 5-cylinder in a nice blue.
Honestly, the car is much more fun to drive than the civic and the salesman did a great job of showing off the sport mode and dropping gear. It moved fairly well, and despite some reviews, sounded pretty good for a commuter car. With 24k on the clock, we think we could get it out the door for $16k, about $3k less than the civic.
So what say you guys? I think it's a good compromise between commuter car and decent fun.