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The Honda Element is a versatile box on wheels, combining unique and practical features with utilitarian chic.
Honda designed the Element for young adventurers who need to haul wet or messy gear, but with the security of an enclosed cargo area. The Element combines those practical considerations with car-like performance and economy.
Its durable, scratch-resistant interior is a big part of the charm here. The seats are designed to get wet and the back seats can be easily removed, serving up a huge cargo area. Loading and unloading gear curbside is aided by the Element's low step-in height. These features also make the Element a good dog car. Canines can easily walk in through one of the side doors, the interior is dog friendly, and there's not much to damage or stain.
In spite of its utilitarian appearance, the Element drives more like a car than a truck, and it's built with components from the Honda Civic.
Honda introduced the Element as a 2003 model and there haven't been a lot of changes since, but the 2006 Element features a host of equipment changes and adds a new trim level called the EX-P.
The Honda Element comes with the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine used in the Accord. It's as sweet as any Honda engine, which means it revs freely and has good low-end torque. Honda has revised its horsepower numbers for the 2006 Element in response to a new Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) testing standard that's affecting all manufacturers. The Element's engine is now rated at 156 horsepower, less than last year's model, but that's only a number. The performance has not changed, just the way it's measured.
The engine provides plenty of power with the manual transmission. The manual transmission features a delightful shifter mounted up in the dashboard like in some of the latest rally cars.
The automatic transmission saps power from the engine, reducing the fun factor. We found this combination offered adequate power for busy freeways in Los Angeles, but adding weight to the cabin, like a couple of 150-pound dogs, noticeably affected acceleration performance.
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. Honda's Real Time 4-Wheel Drive cures this, so we recommend getting one of the 4WD models. The 4WD also gives the Element good winter weather capability.
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, which helps it handle curves better than we expected of such a tall vehicle. The Element is not an off-road vehicle, but its ground clearance and ride height are sufficient for primitive roads.
The Honda Element is a compelling option for drivers who want a genuine utility vehicle that behaves like a car. Its versatile interior makes the Element quite handy in certain situations, with its easy access and flat floor that's easy to clean. We find its distinctive styling appealing.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California; Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.