Dodge Caliber. Click image to enlarge
Article and Photos by Justin Pritchard
Originally published August 9, 2013
Low fuel consumption and large amounts of room for your friends, camping gear, gardening implements and golden retrievers is good stuff – so whether you’re using it as a miniature truck, a pet-taxi or a flexible little runabout, there’s little arguing with the wholesome premise of a high-utility compact.
Here’s a list of some of the most affordable and sought-after compacts in the used car marketplace where low costs and high flexibility are priorities – along with the checks used car shoppers should make of said model, and a smattering of other useful high-utility compact shopping tips.
2007 to 2012 Dodge Caliber
What Owners Love: Flexibility, versatility and a slew of thoughtful touches were all enjoyed by Caliber owners. Though this isn’t a machine known for driving dynamics or refinement, though it provided plenty of space and flexibility on the cheap. Used models are affordable and relatively reliable, if properly maintained and healthy. Caliber is a machine that’s easily set up for a wide range of activities, from passenger-hauling to camping to shopping and anything in between. Generous at-hand storage, a commanding driving position and available AWD confidence helped complete the package. Caliber is tough to beat in terms of pure ‘space for the buck’.
What to Check: The suspension. Clunking, popping or grinding sounds, as well as ‘slack’ in the steering system can all indicate the need for attention to the Caliber’s springy-bits. A mechanic will be familiar with the Caliber’s suspension and able to make a full check quickly for signs of worn-out parts. Faulty engine or transmission sensors may illuminate a Check Engine light – though they may not, so have the Caliber you’re considering scanned by a mechanic. The CVT transmission looks relatively solid if proper maintenance is adhered to. Confirm proper operation of the Bluetooth system, brake lights, air conditioner and sunroof. Double check the stereo for proper operation, too. Finally, triple-check for leaks from models with a sunroof, noting moisture in the footwell carpeting or ceiling liner.
Useful: Though the CVT transmission is relatively un-proven, this unique type of gearbox seems fairly solid when properly maintained. Be sure fluid changes have been carried out on time on any used model you’re considering with a CVT – Caliber or otherwise. Note that clean, fresh fluids can often make a tremendous difference in the longevity of driveline parts.
2007 and up Honda Fit
The Draw: Honda’s designers crammed this little hatch full of space and storage facilities, along with a slick rear seating system that makes it easy to adapt to any combination of passengers and gear. Models from 2009 and on benefitted from a refresh with more feature content and updated looks. With a Honda 1.5L four-cylinder engine on board, shoppers can expect good mileage, peppy performance and long-term reliability. Automatic or manual transmissions were available, and all units were front-drive. Owners give Fit maximum praise for visibility, maneuverability and an all-around easygoing driving experience. Here’s a machine that delivers plenty of space, good fuel mileage and a pleasant-to-drive demeanor.
Honda Fit. Click image to enlarge
What to Check: The body. Look at panel edges for signs of rust or bubbling, and inspect the front bumper and headlights for excessive wear, weathering and chipping. Many owners complain of easily damaged paint on this machine. Check that the hatchback stays open on its own by way of its built-in struts, and that the exterior release for said hatch is in good working order. Especially on earlier models, numerous owners have reported hatch-latch failures, which will cost over $200 to repair. Finally, be sure to feel the Fit’s power steering for any strange sensations, which could indicate a known problem with the power steering pump.
Useful: On any hatchback, ensure the latch releases from the remote keyfob, interior remote release and from the hatch itself. Try each several times, calling any failures into pricing negotiations. Changing tailgate struts isn’t a big issue if the unit you’re considering needs new ones – and it might prevent an unwelcomed whack to the cranius of anyone standing underneath it.