Top Picks: Space for the Buck Champs

A list of suggested rides, new and used, that offer top-notch space to price ratios

Some shoppers want the most horsepower for their dollar. Others want the most ballin’ luxury land yacht they can find for a given price. Others still want maximum safety and confidence in a ride that won’t see them parting with too much of their hard-earned coinage. And, finally other shoppers want a vehicle that’s sensible, affordable, and packs a great big heaping amount of on-board room for them, their people, their things and their gear. For pet owners, family-minded parents, outdoor sports enthusiasts, lawn and garden aficionados or folks who are some or all of the above, a high space-for-the-buck ratio is a must-have in a new ride.

So, for you, Ms. Greenthumb, and for you Mr. Manydogs, and especially for Mr. and Mrs. Momanddad, may we present a list of our favorite rides, new and used, that offer plenty of space for the money you’ll spend.

Criteria for these affordable volume champs? Big on board, cheap on the wallet (under $25,000), and on the reliable side if you’re shopping used.


2012 Scion xB 2012 Scion xB

Scion xB

Why: Because it’s big and cheap and somewhat less-than-common, so you won’t see seven of them every time you go to your local WalMart or arrive at your Friday-night bar gig with a trunk full of drums. The second-generation Scion xB got a facelift and a new North American-specific platform to help it better meet the needs of shoppers on this side of the pond. It was wider, longer, and heavier than the first-generation machine, which became famous for its ‘box on wheels’ styling. First-generation models are less powerful and not as nice to drive, though they can be had cheaper. Going with a second-generation (2008 or newer) unit gets drivers 158 horsepower and manual or automatic transmission options. Many Scion xB owners praise cargo and passenger room, visibility, ride comfort, utility and mileage. Other owner-stated plusses include surprising handling and stability, as well as a powerful stereo system and overall looks. A brand spankin’ new unit can be had from under $19,000.

Used Buying Notes: Curiously, many owners have reported having to replace the windshield in the xB multiple times. Be sure to check the windshield thoroughly for signs of cracks or chips, and note that these may prevent the model in question from passing a used car safety inspection.  The charcoal canister, which filters gas vapors from the fuel system, can be expensive to replace if it goes bad. This may be evidenced by a Check Engine warning light. If said warning light is illuminated, because of this or any other issue, be sure to have a mechanic scan the computer system to see why. All models should be inspected for signs of coolant leaks, which typically precede water pump failure. Look for puddles of leaked coolant beneath the vehicle, and locate the water pump and look for a pink, crusty residue or liquid around it. Ask a mechanic for help if you’re unsure.


2014 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT Plus 2014 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT Plus

Dodge Grand Caravan

Why: Because it’s enormous, cheap, and huge on space-for-the-buck value. Use it as a family hauler, an alternative to an SUV, or go with a high-mileage used unit as an alternative to a work truck. Whatever Caravan you choose, you’ll find heaps of room, a flexible seating system and dual sliding doors to make loading of passengers, gear and pets a cinch. Look for V6 power all around, and a great blend of performance and mileage on newer units with the Pentastar V6 engine and six-speed automatic. New units are priced from under $21,000, and loads are available in the used market, too.

Space, comfort, noise levels and all-around utility and flexibility were highly rated by owners and their families. A great combination of affordable pricing and generous room helped round out the package.

Used Buying Notes: Some owners have reported less-than-expected life of various brake and suspension components, as well as tires. Be sure to have each of these inspected by a mechanic ahead of your purchase if you’re not sure how. Triple-check for proper operation of the air conditioner, and the entire rear-seat climate control system, too. Other checks should include the steering-wheel mounted controls, the navigation, rear-seat entertainment and Bluetooth systems, if equipped. Be sure the transmission operates smoothly – and that it’s been treated to on-time fluid and filter changes, avoiding any model that exhibits signs of slippage, clunking or unwanted noise from the transmission during gear-changes.


2007 Honda Element 2007 Honda Element

Honda Element

Why: Because few machines on this side of affordable offered such a unique blend of four-wheel drive capability, an adventure-ready attitude and plenty of room on board for pets and gear and people. Element was loved for its ability to quickly transition between tasks, and for its clever interior that was durable and easy to configure. Reverse-hinged rear doors with no centre pillar created a large opening to ease loading even further.  Plus, it looks like a toaster, which is sort of neat.

Look for four-cylinder power all round, and a five-speed transmission in automatic or manual. Generous cargo capacity, flexibility, gas mileage, styling and a solid, fun-to-drive feel are typically reported by Element’s owners. Maneuverability and a commanding view of the road are also praised.

Used Buying Notes: Honda Element is only available in the used market these days, and if you’re shopping there, be sure the Element’s keys work properly in all door locks, and ensure the remote works as expected. Ensure the tailgate opens, closes and latches properly with no slamming. Note that the key and latch-related problems mainly affected earlier models. Note that clogged or kinked sunroof drain tubes could cause a water leak into the Elements cabin – evidenced by damp carpeting in the footwell area or a musty smell inside. Make sure this isn’t the case on the unit you’re test-driving. Finally, have a mechanic check for tire and brake life, and for leaks from the engine, transmission and AWD system – if so equipped.


2014 Ford Escape Titanium 2014 Ford Escape Titanium

Ford Escape

Why: Because older models with the boxy look had wide, flat and easy-to-load cargo areas, made great pet haulers, and are fairly solid, reliability-wise. That, plus resale value that falls off nicely after a few years means you can pick one up for cheaper than a RAV4 or CR-V in the used market, and enjoy similar amounts of room. Pricing new from about $23,500, with used, last-generation models offering up four or six-cylinder power, Ford Sync, heated leather and more. Owners of the last-generation Escape report decent fuel mileage, good off-road capability, all-season driving confidence, and a pleasing ride and handling balance.

Used Buying Notes: Checking out a 2008 to 2012 Escape for its blend of traction, comfort, efficient performance and space? Head to a Ford dealer for a check-up before you buy. Note that hard shifting, flaring or slipping during gear changes could all be signs of some well-documented transmission issues that you’ll want to have a Ford mechanic take a look at. Vibrations felt at speed through the floor of the Escape you’re test-driving could be caused by a transmission-related issue, out-of-balance driveshafts or out-of-balanced tires or wheels. If you note any unwelcomed vibration, be sure to have it investigated before agreeing to purchase. On a pre-purchase inspection, the mechanic can check for leaks or other trouble signs for maximum peace of mind.


2014 Subaru Outback 2014 Subaru Outback

Subaru Outback

Why: Because it rides like a car, has a long cargo hold like a minivan, and is great in the snow. If you need to transport a costly rug, lengthy ladder, or some framing lumber through a blizzard with decent fuel mileage and a ‘Top Safety Pick’ from the crash-test guys, this one’s for you. New-car pricing starts well above the $25,000 price limit for this piece, but a used Subaru Outback offers similar attributes for less of your bucks. Go with model-year 2010 to 2014 for four or six-cylinder BOXER power, a gas-saving CVT gearbox and standard All-Wheel Drive (AWD) all around. Shoppers can look for features like voice-activated GPS navigation, a back-up camera system, Bluetooth phone interface and streaming Bluetooth audio. This one holds its value strongly as a used buy, so be prepared for higher-than-average used-car prices when you shop (or sell, later). Some owners call the Outback the perfect mix of SUV confidence and a car-like drive.

Used Buying Notes: Outside, check for proper operation of the headlamps and taillamps, as some owners have reported frequent bulb failure. The problem might stem from a light sensor circuit, or a wonky alternator that creates voltage spikes. Some have had luck replacing the light sensor with a revised unit that Subaru started installing from 2013 and on. Find the trunk release button and confirm it’s working properly. If it seems stuck, you may need to use your thumbnail to free it. If it gets stuck again, you’ll probably need a new button. Some owners report noisy power steering pumps and increased resistance from the steering system as a sign of power steering pump failure, though this seems fairly rare. Park the Outback and turn the wheel from lock to lock at various speeds, noting that unwelcomed sound effects or a change in steering effort could indicate a problem.


2008 Chevrolet HHR SS 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS

Chevrolet HHR

Why: Because you can find one cheap, and it probably won’t break. Almost unfair resale values on this Cobalt-based retro-wagon combine with solid reliability and a proven drivetrain to give shoppers one of the used marketplace’s best combinations of space and affordability. Plus, if you want, you can get the HHR SS with turbo power and a manual gearbox, which is badass, even moreso if you add a custom tune to turn up the boost, since the tuner kids say the little Ecotec engine can take it.

Or, if you’re reasonable and don’t like having any fun, Look for a 2.2L engine with 143 horsepower or a 2.4L with 172. Engine output was increased slightly in 2007, and all models got a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission that drove the front wheels. Ride quality, handling, fuel mileage and interior flexibility were all highly rated by HHR owners taking to the web. Smooth and refined powerplant performance was also noted.

Used Buying Notes: Key concerns on a used HHR tend to centre around electric steering system failure, which could cause a loss of power assist that could startle certain drivers and could result in an accident. Thankfully a recall addressed this situation, and the vehicle’s seller has probably had that recall carried out. Ask them to be certain. Check the automatic gear shifter for proper operation, ensuring it slips smoothly between the gears with no hesitation or difficulty. A faulty shifter button, cable and/or brake interlock switch could be to blame if that’s not the case. Note any clunking or popping noises, especially from the front end, which could be evidence of a worn-out suspension part.


2005 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon 2005 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon

VW Jetta TDI Wagon

Why: Because it’s got room to burn, gets fuel mileage that’ll make you giggle, and is nice to drive. Owners report great fuel efficiency, a honed feel to the Jetta Wagon’s driving manners, and love the availability of both manual and automatic dual-clutch transmissions. Look for upscale feature content like a sunroof, automatic climate control, heated leather, Bluetooth, premium audio and more. Also, look for nearly SUV levels of cargo space without the heftiness, fuel chugging, or difficulty with maneuverability in tight spaces. All units are front-wheel drive and backed by nearly 240 lb-ft of torque, which is heaps.

Used Buying Notes: An illuminated check-engine light, hesitation under acceleration or poor overall performance could be the result of a failed or failing engine control sensor or a turbocharger that’s on its way out. If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to have them addressed. Ensure all motorized features work as expected – including all windows, the sunroof, power seats and power locks. Confirm proper heated-seat operation if equipped, and be sure all instrumentation and interior panel illumination is working properly. Ask a VW mechanic to check the fuel lines for possible signs of leaking, and to complete a quick pre-purchase inspection for maximum peace of mind. Finally, note that issues with the available DSG transmission are typically sensor-related and not mechanical in nature – though shoppers who can drive a manual are advised to stick to their guns.