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Honda went out on a limb with the Element. Normally a conservative company, it designed a unique vehicle, both in appearance and packaging. The Element is sort of military/utilitarian chic. Honda says Element was designed specifically for young male buyers who need a truck to haul their stuff, but want the security of an enclosed cargo area with car-like performance and economy. As it turns out, the Element appeals to a much larger audience than young men.
Element features a plain, durable, scratch-resistant interior, and that's a big part of its charm. Its seats are designed to get wet. It looks like a little truck, but is built with components from the Honda Civic so it drives more like a car than a truck-based SUV.
The Element was all-new for 2003 and returns for 2004 with minor changes. Most significantly, there's now a mid-range LX trim level between the plain DX and the premium EX; meanwhile the EX comes with more standard equipment than before.
Each of the three trim levels is available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, and a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. All are powered by a four-cylinder engine, Honda's i-VTEC 2.4-liter.
The entry-level DX ($16,100) does not come with a radio or air conditioning. It does, however, come with power windows and door locks, four-wheel disc brakes, and an adjustable steering column. The new LX ($17,100) adds air conditioning with micron filtration and a four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo.
EX ($18,900) adds aluminum wheels, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, a passenger-side armrest, and a seven-speaker, 270-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with an auxiliary input for an MP3 player or other digital media.
All of the above can be ordered with an automatic transmission ($800) and/or Honda's Real Time all-wheel drive ($1400). Order all-wheel drive, and you also get a large rear skylight that tilts open or removes completely and stores inside the vehicle. Side-impact airbags ($250) are offered on the EX only.
Safety features include front seatbelts with pre-tensioners and load limiters to reduce the chance of belt-related injuries. The Element earned a five-star rating for both driver and front-seat passenger in the federal (NHTSA) frontal crash test. Side-impact airbags are only available for the EX, however, and are an extra-cost option that we recommend as they can help reduce injuries in a side impact. As mentioned, ABS only comes on the EX model, and we recommend it as it allows the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency-braking situation.
The Honda Element is one funky looking car. Or is it a van? For one thing, the front fascia, front and rear fenders, and rocker panels are all made of a scratch- and dent-resistant composite that's molded in a dark gray color.
From the front, the Element has a cheeky, chunky look accentuated by rectangular headlights and the unusual design of the bumper. The side of the vehicle has a distinct shape unlike any other on American roads. The hood line is fairly low and leads to a steep windshield flowing into a gently curved roofline; while the rear tailgate is nearly vertical.
That tailgate is split horizontally so that the lower half can be used as a seating surface for parties. The Element's rear corners are nicely curved, so it does not look as chunky from behind. Large 16-inch wheels help ensure the Element doesn't look like a minivan.
When it was first shown as a concept vehicle in 2001, nobody dreamed that Honda would be brave enough to bring the Element into production so quickly. Certainly no one thought it would be sold in the U.S. But Honda stuck with its radical concept right down to the pillarless, center-opening doors, an increasingly popular feature on full-size extended-cab pickup trucks.
The Honda Element has lots of room for passengers and cargo with a flexible interior designed to handle all combinations of people and stuff. The front seats have acres of headroom and there's no center tunnel between the front seats to get in the way.
The rear seats are roomy as well. They are raised off the floor a couple of inches higher than the front seats so that rear seat passengers can look over the front seats for better visibility. However, we found rear-seat passengers complained (some bitterly) about not being able to see signs and buildings; they have to stoop to see out the windshield. This makes the Element a poor place for taking a group sightseeing.
One of the most talked-about features on the Element is its pillarless rear-hinged doors. With no B-pillars to get in the way, there's easy access to the rear. For safety reasons, however, the rear side doors cannot be opened unless the front door has been opened first. Likewise, the rear doors have to be closed before the front side doors can be closed. This is a hassle when dropping off back-seat passengers because the front-seat occupants have to unbuckle their seatbelts and open their doors to let rear passengers in or out. Pull up next to a wall and your passengers will find themselves stuck in an unexpected, intimate party, as they get trapped between the open doors.
When it comes to moving cargo, this Honda is in its element. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) It's great for getting groceries. The center-opening doors allow easy loading of bulky objects without having a pillar to get in the way. The rear seats fold down easily, and can be swung up to the side, leaving an uninterrupted flat floor space. The front passenger seatback can be folded forward to make room for a 10-foot surfboard, and that would still leave room for the driver and one passenger behind the driver. All the seats, including the driver's, can be folded back to make a large, albeit uncomfortable, double bed. When parked, the Element can be set up to serve as a giant locker for surfboards and other large items, a great feature. The keyless remote unlocked only the driver's door on our Element, however, which was inconvenient.
The floor is covered in a urethane-coated material that resists water, dirt and scratches, and is easily cleaned. The front seats are coated in a waterproof material designed for easy cleaning as well. On LX and EX, the rear seats are covered with the same material.
Storage areas abound. The backs of the front seats have large storage pockets. On the EX, both the front and rear seats on the driver's side also have bungee cords on the back to secure even larger objects. (For example, says Honda, you could strap skateboards to the backs of both left-side seats.) Cup holders can be found on the backs of folded seats.
The dashboard reflects the simple design of the Element. The gauges are contained in three deep pods. Climate and radio controls are well placed. The EX provides an auxiliary jack for an MP3 player, such as an Apple iPod, so the stored music can be played back directly through the Element's sound system. The 270-watt system included with the EX is pretty decent and includes a large subwoofer beneath the dashboard.
The Honda Element comes with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder that's used in the Accord. It's as sweet as any Honda engine, which means it revs freely and has good low-end torque.
As long as you shift gears at a respectable rpm the engine provides plenty of power with the manual transmission. And you'll want the manual transmission for its delightful shifter, mounted up in the dashboard, just like in the latest rally cars. We didn't find the automatic transmission to be as much fun as it reduces the funky feel of the Element.
Element is a front-wheel-drive vehicle so there is a touch of torque steer, that tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration, but it isn't a concern. A bigger issue was wheelspin in the wet. Step on the gas, and it's easy to spin the front wheels on front-wheel-drive models, particularly in the rain. All-wheel drive cures this.
The ride quality is bouncy. From an engineering standpoint, the Honda Element is basically a re-bodied CR-V; and the CR-V is built on the same platform as the Honda Civic. The Element has a slightly wider track than the CR-V, and 16-inch wheels, which help it handle curves better than one expects of such a tall vehicle. Speaking of tall, the Element's ground clearance and ride height are sufficient for primitive roads, but this is not an off-road vehicle by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it supposed to be.
The Honda Element is an attractive proposition for someone who wants a genuine utility vehicle that behaves like a car. There's no denying the usefulness of its versatile interior. Although the federal classifies the Element as a truck, it's really a modern station wagon masquerading as a hip-looking van. Looks are part of the attraction here. You'll either like the Element or hate it. We liked it and found it appeals to people of all ages.