Honda Puts the Box Back in the Econobox
Elementary, my dear Watson
by Jim Bray
Well, it appears that even Honda can have an off day.
The companys new crossover vehicle is, if nothing else, unique and interesting,
but whether or not its a success remains to be seen. As of this writing
the Element is still new enough that not many have been seen on the roads around
our world headquarters - and believe me, with the way this thing looks wed
notice it if it were there!
That doesnt mean it wont sell, of course, and being a Honda it
probably will. And it will undoubtedly please its owners.
I just dont really understand why.
Heres what Honda says about the Elements raison detre: The
2003 Honda Element was produced to accommodate a new generation of vehicle
buyers who seek room for bulky items such as large sports gear, but dont
want a pickup truck, large SUV or minivan. Fair enough. What this generation
of vehicle buyers gets is a vehicle that looks like a scaled down cross between
a Hummer H2, a Jeep TJ, and a picnic cooler - built of course with Hondas
traditional quality and attention to detail.
Or is it? One of the things Ive liked about Hondas since I began reviewing
them a few years ago is their attention to detail. Honda not only gets the
big things right, they get the little details right, too.
Except for the Element, it seems. There were so many little things that rubbed
me the wrong way about this vehicle that it proves either that Honda can occasionally
blow it or that Im so hopelessly out of touch with its target market
that I should pack up my word processor and go home.
Before we get to the many, many things to like about the Honda Element, Ill
give you a few examples of the rather trivial things that, added together,
combined to make for a more frustrating experience for me than is usual from
On my tester, which didnt come with a keyless entry system (its
optional, though), you cant lock the drivers door from the inside
and then close the door and expect it to stay locked; you have to put the key
into the lock on the outside and do it that way. Likewise, you cant unlock
both front doors from the outside of the drivers door; you have to either
use the lock inside the drivers door or reach all the way over to the
passenger side (which for me was an excessively long stretch - virtually impossible).
Theres no drivers dead pedal, either, nor is there side bolstering
on the seats to help hold you in during spirited cornering. And the steering
wheel, while its comfortable and offers a reasonable view of the instrument
panel, doesnt tilt up or down enough to be really worthwhile. And when
I got the drivers seat adjusted to a comfortable position for my rather
short frame Id be in danger of barking my knees on the dashboard panel.
And while there are a zillion storage thingies, many of them are designed so
that much of the stuff Id want to store (sunglasses, phone, etc.) would
fall out of them.
There are some large blind spots, too, including the big front A pillars and
a driver side B pillar thats right beside your head when you turn
to shoulder check. Other than that, however, the greenhouse is excellent.
Thats the downside. And as I mentioned, its all pretty minor stuff,
but when you add them all together it made for the first Honda that wasnt
a blast to have.
On the upside, theres plenty to love here, too. Based on the terrific
CRV, though shorter and higher, theres a lot of very flexible hauling
room inside the multi-configurable Element. The back seats can be removed,
folded down into a bed, or folded up against the sidewalls, leaving space for
bicycles, snowboards, lawn aerators, or what have you. And the interior is
basically a rubberized substance thatll wipe down easily. Honda says
the cargo area can accept items up to 10 feet in length and I believe them.
The Elements rear side doors are of the suicide
(or is it coach?) variety, opening rearward and wide to create
a huge port of entry. You have to open the front doors to get at them, unfortunately,
but this isnt too big a deal. On the other hand, we had one occasion
when we installed a rear seat passenger and then the front passenger tried
closing her door not realizing that the rear door has to be closed first. This
would just take a bit of getting used to, though.
Without dumping excessively on the Element, theres a lot more to like
about it, too. You sit up fairly high, in a driving position thats a
cross between a car, an SUV and a bus, and this gives you a great view of the
And the 2.4 liters DOHC four cylinder engine is terrific. Shared with the
CRV and Accord, it features an aluminum engine block and head,16 valves, Hondas
i-VTEC variable valve timing, low emissions, and boasts a decent 160 horses
@ 5500 rpm and 161 pound feet of torque @ 4500. When driving the Element, however,
these specs feel on the low side because the car (or whatever it is) is really
quite peppy and moves along very nicely indeed. In fact the vehicle feels lighter
and more frisky than youd think, and that always pleases me.
My tester was the base model, which came with a smooth five speed manual transmission
whose shifter, as appears to be the current trend, juts from the bottom of
the instrument panel. While not quite as natural feeling as the similarly-mounted
lever on the Civic SiR, its fine;
it shifts very well, too.
A four speed automatic is available for those who choose not to have fun while
My tester was also a two wheel drive model; real time
four wheel drive (which is really a 2wd system that sends torque to the rear
wheels when necessary) is optional. This would make the Element more suitable
for general off road use than the 2wd version I drove. It would probably
perform very well away from the asphalt or on snow, too, as long as you dont
go crazy, as my memories of the CRV tell me. You also get decent ground clearance,
which will help when things get messy.
The Element features handsome, five spoke 16 inch wheels wearing P215/70R16
99S tires that seem quite capable, though I didnt take them off road
during my Elementary week. The upgraded Y
package features silver alloy wheels.
Inside, besides the abovementioned caveat about being thrown out of the seat
when you corner hard, the fabric covered seats are quite comfortable and rear
seat passengers sit up higher than the front, which gives them a nicely less
cluttered view out front. It also makes them squeeze down a bit to look
out the side windows, though. The drivers seat has a wide range of manual
adjustments, including seat height.
Instruments are legible and well laid out and the AM/FM/CD stereo is one of
the best Ive heard in a Honda - though for some reason theres no
volume readout on its face plate (you have to judge the volume by whether or
not your ears start ringing!).
Interior features on my base tester include the usual stuff such as power
windows, air conditioning, and cruise control. Everything is located nicely
within the drivers reach.
Steering is variable power assist rack and pinion and the Element has a small
turning circle thatll come in very handy in tight spots. Brakes are power-assisted
disc all around; the suspension up front features independent struts and in
the rear you get independent double wishbones. Front and back both have stabilizer
The Element is a relative blast to drive even if, like me, you prefer sports
cars to boxy things. It moves with alacrity, handles and stops well, and doesnt
display any ugly surprises other than the body style - and thats really
a matter of taste.
And my aversion for a vehicle that goes boxlike just when Volvo is discovering
roundness may only be me, judging from the stares the Element got. We noticed
an almost embarrassing number of heads snapping in its direction when we drove
around and when we parked it the Element tended to draw in people (mostly younger
people) almost as if it were magnetic. Maybe that was its novelty, being so
new, or maybe Honda knows a heck of a lot more about what its doing than
Nah, how could that be? Im part of the media, after all!
Whatever the reason, this cratelike little truck-thing does seem to show that
Honda is comfortable in its Element.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by The
TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.