Thanks for all the input. I spent about five hours today hitting up various shops and trying bikes. I almost bought a Focus Mares AX2 but settled on the Jake in the end as it just seemed like a slightly better fit for my purposes. Very stoked and I get it tomorrow!
As to the shifting problem, I really couldn't find anything about this online and the guys I talked to at the store today said those other guys I talked to were 'on glue' LOL. I can't necessarily trust a guy trying to sell me something but I have to think that if this was as major a problem as it was made out to be then people would be talking about it everywhere.
One thing I really noticed was how poorly tuned a lot of the bikes were that I test road. For someone like me who is fairly ignorant about what I'm buying, first impressions on that test ride are huge and some of these shops just blow it when I jump on a bike that's right in my price range and it doesn't feel close to perfect.
Side note: I want to get a waterproof saddle bag that can hold my laptop and stuff for the commute. The ones in the bike stores are pretty pricey and this seems like something I could get online pretty cheap. Does anybody have a recommendation?
I have commuted for decades on old rigid-tailed-forked MTBs, and my Surly Long Haul Trucker. Some of my MTBs have weighted in at well under $1000. Sometimes I converted them to drop bars for more of a road bike feel until I got the Trucker which is actually just a road bike that accepts up to 2.1" tires with fenders. So my Trucker really does anything I want, and if not, I just use different tires. What my Trucker lacks (or does not lack) is weight. It is relatively heavy compared to nicer cyclocross bikes.
OK, this might be off topic a bit but my DREAM commuter is actually a Specialized S-Works Crux cyclocross bike.
I had the opportunity to spend a day on one at a Specialized event out in Cali a couple of years ago and it was love at first sight, fit me like a glove, and became part of me before the first hour had passed. At $8000 retail you would expect a bike to be amazing. Even at pro deal prices I could not justify the new love-of-my-life as my stable was full and there was nothing I wanted to part with to make room for it. My boss at the time knew of my lust for this bike (I was doing computer work for a LBS) so he hung one right over the back edge of my desk (which was also the edge of the showroom floor on the opposite side). So for a few months I had "my" dream bike dangling at arm's length for occasional caresses of it's tapered chainstays. And not even compliant with fenders and racks!
So HELL YES a cyclocross bike would make a great commuter! Even those affordable to mere mortals like me will get the job done.
"For all we know his skills may be excellent, allowing him to ride like an idiot without actually being one." - FBinNY
i bought a road bike for a commuter about 2 weeks ago. i already had a flat bar straight fork mountain bike with street tires that i use for family trips and trailer pulling. if i hadn't already had the flat bar, i would have chosen a cyclocross for sure. just my 2 cents.