Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Now is a great time to be an automotive consumer. Not only are today's production cars safer, faster and more efficient, but manufacturer concept cars are much more exciting and visionary as well. The 1950s', science-fiction-inspired promises of an automotive future with advanced safety equipment, fuel-efficient engines and cars that can be quickly reconfigured are just now coming to fruition.
While concept cars of the past, like the Ford Nucleon (yep, a nuclear-powered car), never stood even a remote chance of making it to your local dealer, today's concepts are quickly turning into real and affordable cars. Vehicles such as the Volkswagen New Beetle, Plymouth Prowler, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Thunderbird and now the 2005 Honda Element are all examples of cars that seemed to go from crazy concept to driveway reality in only a matter of months.
The Honda Element began life as the Model X concept first shown at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The inspiration for the Model X was the inaugural X Games held in 1998 in San Diego. If you don't know what the X Games are, the Element is probably not your cup of tea (we hear Buick makes some good cars for you non-X Gamers).
Like the X Games, the Honda Element strips away all the nonsense and gets right down to business. While the styling of the Element is a little different than that of the Model X, the true spirit of the concept survived. The Element's rear doors open in a clamshell fashion and the front doors open wider than usual to make access to the roomy interior easy. Composite body panels give the Element a cool, post-modern look and are designed to resist denting and chipping so that the vehicle can be used in the outdoorsy manner in which it was intended.
Cool-looking or not, the Honda Element we drove had only 7,000 miles on the odometer but the hip-looking composite material was peeling and discolored around the fuel filler door and into the side of the rear bumper. It was obvious that the damage occurred as a result of spilled fuel, but who among us can honestly say they've never spilled a little gas on their car when gassing up? Honda is billing these body panels as rough and rugged, and after talking to company representatives we confirmed that our pre-production test vehicle was not outfitted with the final version of these bumpers. These same Honda reps assured us that production Elements will have exterior pieces able to withstand the occasional fuel splash.
Inside, there is no carpet to soil and most interior surfaces are covered with a durable rubber or plastic texture in many ways the interior seems more capable of standing up to rough treatment than the exterior. The floor is made of a rubber/vinyllike material that can easily be wiped out, swept out or possibly even hosed out. The seats are made of an equally durable canvaslike material but offer all the comfort of regular cloth-covered seats.
To maximize interior space, the front and rear seats can be folded completely flat and can be used as a small bed or cot. Once the rear seats are folded flat, they can swing up and stow to the side leaving a deep and flat cargo floor. The seats can be totally removed as well, but the flip-up storage feature is excellent in that it adds versatility. With the seats removed or stowed up and off the floor, cargo capacity is more than adequate. The Honda Element has a maximum cargo capacity of 75 cubic feet; that's almost 10 cubic feet more than that of bigger SUVs such as the Nissan Xterra and Ford Escape. But don't tell anyone; if word of this gets out, you may be spending every other Saturday helping some of your slacker buddies move back into Mom's house.
Even with all this cargo capacity, there is still plenty of room for people. The rear seats are incredibly comfortable and can recline. They offer plenty of head-, hip- and legroom. The latter is especially accommodating and borders on limolike space. Seating is arranged in a tier, or "theater" configuration, making the rear seats a little higher than the front seats so as to give everyone a commanding view of the surrounding scenery no matter where one sits.
The downside to all this space is that the clamshell doors are not as convenient as one might think. Yes, the doors do open very wide which makes getting in and out easy from a space standpoint, but that ease is marred by the inability of the rear doors to open independent of the front doors. In theory, it would be no trouble at all to have the front-seat passenger open his/her door to allow the rear-seat passenger in or out, but in practice we found it less than ideal in several situations. Extreme cold, wind, rain or snow would add to the hassle as the front-seat passenger would always have to open his/her door to allow a person into the rear seating area. The bottom line is that the doors look really cool and do allow for ease of loading cargo from the side, but traditional rear doors found on other small SUVs work much better in most situations. The added versatility for cargo loading is appreciated but if you plan to haul more people (especially children) than stuff, the Element may not be the best choice.
All this versatility and interior space would mean nothing without the civility and smoothness Hondas are known for. Honda has some of the most refined four-cylinder engines on the planet; in some cases they offer more quiet perfection than other automakers' V6 engines. The Element stays true to this formula and is powered by a fuel-efficient (22 city/26 highway with front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission) 2.4-liter inline four making 160 horsepower.
Certainly the Honda Element won't win any drag races, but it can break the front tires loose and does offer peppy performance with enough smoothness to make everyday commuting a pleasant experience. Under heavy acceleration the four does make a little noise, but it never sounds or feels harsh, and the surging VTEC sometimes associated with Honda's higher-revving fours is not noticeable. Open highway travel is probably where the Element does its best work cruising along at 60 or 70 mph, the engine is virtually silent.
From behind the wheel, the Element feels as tall and boxy as it is. With the front windshield having minimal rake and the hood being very prominent, the Element comes off a little like a Honda jeep. Some drivers liken the Element and its driving position to a "mini-Hummer," and that is not an altogether unfair assessment. This is a definite plus; a high seating position is one of the many implied promises of the modern SUV, and the Element delivers. Even with its tall profile, handling is predictable. The steering offers positive feedback and the wide track keeps the Element stable in evasive maneuvers.
Although our tester was an automatic, we were able to spend time with a manual as well. The five-speed manual is precise and easy to shift but the odd placement of the shifter takes a few minutes to get used to. The clutch is light without feeling flimsy. With a manual transmission, the Honda Element is more fun, as that type of transmission is more in keeping with the spirit of the vehicle. The automatic shifts up and down without drama but does sap some power from the inline four. The automatic version of the Element is not frustratingly slow, but there is an extra bit of pizzazz in all rev ranges when driving the five-speed the manual is simply more rewarding.
Its pleasant cruising manners plus cavernous and versatile interior make the Element a wonderful road trip car. The only thing that could detract from the fun of the open road is the Honda Element's shape. Because of its boxy, high roof, the Element is prone to wind noise as well as noticeable wind buffeting. In gusty conditions, this box on wheels provides plenty of surface area for the wind to really push. The Element never feels tippy, but high winds can really bounce it around.
New car shoppers who need the convenience and versatility of an SUV, but can't stomach the ideal of single-digit fuel economy, will find the 2003 Honda Element a godsend. True to its Model X roots, the Honda Element delivers plenty of cargo capacity with a striking and utilitarian exterior shape. The interior is excellent in its ability to comfortably accommodate people or lots of cargo without sacrificing durability or standout styling. And true to its Honda name, the Element is smooth and refined and has enough pep to keep its intended audience happy. While this boxy-looking little SUV may have a few minor weak spots, it does offer young Honda shoppers a fresh alternative to Dad's Accord without the worry of limited reliability.
System Score: 7
Components: The Element offers a fairly standard and straightforward audio system. Given the youth market the Element is aimed at, a more full featured system would seem in order. Then again, this is a low-priced car.
With the Element EX a seven-speaker, 270-watt, AM/FM single CD system with front-mounted subwoofer is standard. The unit has typical bass and treble adjustments but also offers an adjustment for subwoofer intensity a nice feature on a budget-priced vehicle. The only downside is that there is no midrange adjustment available. The LX offers the same system as an option. An in-dash CD changer, cassette player and/or MP3 player are optional as well.
In keeping with the interior theme, all knobs and buttons are large and have a rugged, durable feel and the various functions are easy to access.
Performance: Sound quality is a mixed bag. This stereo sure will get loud, but the various frequencies do not remain separate and clear. The subwoofer offers deep, tight bass, but the highs can sound shrill or tinny. There is a noticeable lack of midrange too often the vocals sound distant and lack the presence of the bass. Live recordings suffer the same fate with vocals and strings sounding distant. The speakers sound overpowered except when playing more pop/rock tracks. But, that's probably intentional on Honda's part given the crowd this car is geared toward.
Best Feature: Great bass from the adjustable subwoofer.
Worst Feature: Shrill highs.
Conclusion: This is an adequate system considering the car's entry-level price. Audiophiles may want to invest in some extra gear. Brian Moody
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: When you're a "car guy" married to a "noncar girl," you quickly adapt to your spouse's reaction when driving home the latest four-wheeled conveyance. The most common reaction is, quite simply, a lack of any reaction. Cars mean as much to my wife as Versace (or "Ver-sayz," as I like to say) dresses mean to me. I rarely bother to tell her what car I've driven home on any given night because I know she likely doesn't care.
So you can imagine my surprise when I heard her open the garage door to retrieve some knickknack and was treated to a verbal reaction of "Oooh, wow, what's this?! Wow, look at this car!" The door then closed and it was several minutes before she came back into the house, at which point I was further assailed by various verbal outbursts. "That car is sooo cool. Even the name, Element, is cool. And how come more manufacturers don't use those reverse-opening doors? They're really great. It's a Honda, right? How much does it cost? Is that the one where you can hose out the interior?" In the past two months, I've driven home a Viper, 350Z, FX45, 911, Arnage R and XKR. None of those cars rattled my wife (who also happens to be a mother of two) like Honda's new Element. Add to this our company president's overwhelmingly positive reaction to driving the car and it's clear the Element is going to be a hit far beyond Honda's "college guy" target market segment.
Road Editor John DiPietro says: Two things struck me most about the Element: the incredible space efficiency and the attention to details. Although it may not appear so, the Element is eight inches shorter than a Civic coupe, making it easy to maneuver in traffic and a snap to park. Yet thanks to the tall, boxy design, the amount of space for passengers and cargo is simply astonishing. Sitting behind the driver seat (which was adjusted for my admittedly compact stature) I was able to stretch my legs out straight without hitting the front seat back. I took a couple of my six-foot tall cronies out for a spin to better evaluate the rear-seat accommodations (they both sat in back), and they had legroom to spare. And the center-opening doors and the rear seats that flip up to the sides are a few more strokes of Honda's genius, making the task of carrying bulky items no sweat.
As far as the details, one need only look at the power point covers to see what I mean. Instead of having the type of "hinge" that is really just thin plastic that bends to and fro, the Element's power outlets have piano hinges, meaning no matter how many times you open and close them they shouldn't eventually break off like the cheap ones do. Then there are the large sun visors, which also have huge extendable auxiliary visors that slide out, allowing full coverage when they're swung out to the side. Lastly, the driver window has not just "one-touch" down, but also one-touch up, an uncommon feature on a vehicle in this price range.
But I'm not a fan of the Element's styling. Maybe I'm getting old, but some of the design "elements" are a little too weird for me, such as the heavy-handed front end and the noncohesive appearance of the front and rear panels. I know those composite fenders have a functional purpose, allowing one to lean their bike or snowboard against the Element without scratching it up, but I'd rather have the finished look of the whole vehicle being painted.
As is the case with virtually any Honda, driving the Element is a pleasant, if not exciting, experience. For such a tall vehicle, the Element handles great. There's no tippy feeling at all as there is barely any body roll when running through the curves. And even with the automatic, the 160-horse i-VTEC four provides enough pep to make driving enjoyable. Add in pricing that starts at under $17,000, typically high Honda build quality and fuel economy that absolutely shames most small SUVs (that offer little more in terms of real-world functionality), and it's clear that Honda's got another winner on its hands.
"Love my Element. I had a Toyota Tundra Limited and traded it in for this baby. My experience has been great. Comfort, roominess and convenience. Fits all my needs. I got it green and I think it's the best color. I have not enjoyed driving until the Element came along, but now, I just can't seem to get out of my Element! I like the expansive legroom in the backseat and the way the seats configure. Everything is rugged and washable like me." Dan289, Jan. 25, 2003
"The Element handles well and the various configurations make the SUV very user-friendly. The exterior and interior design are cool, not like your everyday grocery-getter. Honda's Realtime 4WD is great in the snow." M.Black, Jan. 22, 2003
"I think we're the first to own an Element in our area and we love it. We've been getting favorable stares left and right. It's very reasonably priced and you get a lot. The ride is pretty smooth and the pickup is great. The interior design is really unique and easy to access. (You can't hose it down, though.) The back is amazingly roomy. There is a great selection of colors. If you have kids, the suicide doors are perfect for putting in car seats or having kids just climb right in. Overall, we love it." KPA, Jan. 21, 2003
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