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The Honda Element was created to be the ultimate in utilitarian chic, and this year it got a little chic-er. The mainstream models that dog lovers and surfers love remain, but the introduction of the chic new Element SC turns this versatile box on wheels into a lowered, carpeted, monochromatic urban cruiser.
As with the other models, the 2007 Honda Element SC can in minutes change roles from a four-seat people mover to a surprisingly big cargo hauler. Likewise, it delivers sedan-style driving dynamics and good fuel economy, at least by SUV standards. However, the SC is not a muddy boot, hose-it-out kind of vehicle, and it's dropped any pretense of all-terrain capability. Clearly, the Element has evolved.
Launched as a 2003 model, the Honda Element was originally aimed at young adventurers who need to haul wet or messy gear within the security of an enclosed cargo area. Its durable, quick-clean interior was a big part of its charm, rather than a strippo-model drawback. Low step-in height made loading mountain bikes or surfboards or big dogs easy, and vinyl flooring made it extra dog-friendly. Dark vinyl fenders and heavy cladding made stone chips or brush scrapes a non-issue. But young surfer boys weren't the only ones attracted to the utility and cuteness of the Honda Element. Other folks saw the benefits of roomy box that got good gas mileage and was easy to park.
The utility benefits mentioned above still apply to the 2007 Element LX, an unadorned base model. And to a considerable extent those benefits still apply to the high-trim EX. Starting with the 2006 models, however, the EX models began rolling out of the factory with painted fenders and cladding, though the bumpers and roof trim remained basic dark vinyl.
Now comes the Element SC, the first model with a fully painted exterior and cloth upholstery. Its suspension is lower and stiffer for improved handling, and it has big 18-inch wheels.
All 2007 models benefit from a major infusion of safety features, including curtain-style head protection airbags for front and rear passengers and Vehicle Stability Assist for improved driver control, making them the benchmark for small utility vehicles. With these upgrades, Honda completes its Safety First marketing initiative, which it claims gives all its vehicles luxury-grade safety features.
A new five-speed automatic transmission for 2007 and a slight increase in horsepower improves throttle response. Despite its utilitarian roots, the Element has always driven more like a car than a truck. Think of a base Honda Civic sedan with softer springs and a higher driving position and you won't be far off. The Element is a fine little automotive appliance. Dressed up as the SC model, it has a little more style.
The Honda Element's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine gets a 10-hp boost for 2007, raising the output to 166 hp, thanks to improvements in Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing system. The optional automatic transmission is bumped from four speeds to five, which improves engine response and should deliver a slight increase in real-world fuel economy.
This engine revs freely and likes running near the high end of the tachometer. Yet Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing system give this four-cylinder good acceleration lower in the rev range, and power comes fairly evenly all the way from idle to the redline on the tach. (This same engine is used in the CR-V.)
The increase in power for the 2007 models is welcome. While it has one of the stronger four-cylinders available, the Element is much heaver than the typical small sedan. There's plenty of power for the daily grind, but the Element won't win many stoplight showdowns. Adding a couple of 150-pound dogs, or loading the cabin in any fashion, noticeably affects acceleration performance.
We like the manual transmission. The shifter is mounted up in the dashboard like in some of the latest rally cars, and it's easy to use. The manual allows a driver to optimize the engine's performance, and it makes the Element more fun to drive. It's more fun than the automatic.
However, the new five-speed automatic is definitely an improvement over the previous four-speed. Upshifts are smooth and downshifts are relatively quick. More importantly, the extra gear helps keep the engine in the most productive part of its power band more often, without a decrease in overall fuel economy.
The Element is a front-wheel-drive vehicle with a fairly powerful engine, so there is a touch of torque steer: a tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration. It's not the least bit troublesome, but in most locales we would choose Honda's Real Time 4-Wheel Drive.
This all-wheel-drive system makes the Element a good winter car in the Snow belB. And while the Element is by no means an off-road vehicle, the LX and EX models have sufficient ride height and ground clearance for primitive roads. They can be good vehicles for remote camping trips. The all-wheel drive doesn't add too much weight, so it doesn't greatly diminish fuel economy.
The Element is wider than the typical small sedan, and it handles curves well for a relatively tall vehicle. In nearly all circumstances it's pleasant, even fun, to drive.
The new Element SC has a lowered, firmer suspension and slightly quicker steering for more responsive handling on pavement. It borders on what we'd call sporty, and it actually acquits itself well on an autocross competion course. It understeers (or pushes) noticeably, meaning a driver's natural reaction is slow up and turn the wheel more, but so do most front-drive cars. Push the Element SC fairly aggressively, and it's at least predictably consistent in its responses. There is a downside to the SC's sportier suspension tuning, however. While the steering is surprisingly quick for a vehicle of this type, the springs are still fairly soft, with quite a bit of suspension travel. The result is a little of what we call the tricycle effect. Jerk the Element SC's steering wheel sharply and it will change direction quickly, but the driver will feel a pronounced plowing effect, as if the nose is diving toward the pavement. Nothing to worry about, just something to get familiar with if you have visions of autocrossing your Element SC.
Further, in certain circumstances, the ride can be very bouncy. This applies to all Elements, but particularly the SC, which has firmer shocks. Most of the time it's not a concern, but on certain roads with repeating seams or indents that create a washboard effect, the SC can get bouncing like a baby buggy, to the point that the driver's foot will actually bounce on the gas pedal with the
Even with the new SC model, the Honda Element is a utility first vehicle. It's designed to maximize space and people/cargo hauling options in a fairly small package, with driving characteristics similar to a small sedan and optional all-wheel-drive for a measure of security. It offers easy access for people or cargo, and the wash-an-wear interior on the LX and EX models is great for camping and dogs. We find Element's styling distinctive. In total, it's a good vehicular appliance, and the new SC model adds a notch more attitude.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie reported from Santa Barbara, California; with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit and Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.