Handling that belies its appearance, cabin space that belies its appearance, fits in small parking spots.
Stiff ride in SC trim, disappointing fuel economy, tight driving position for some.
Seven years — that's nearly 50 in dog years. That's how long the current-generation Honda Element has been around. That's also a couple years longer than usual for a vehicle wearing the big H. But the 2009 Honda Element (which sports a slight face-lift) is anything but an old dog. Though it can't catch a Frisbee or hang out with you on the sofa while you watch ESPN, this highly versatile vehicle might still give old Champ a run for his money in the "Man's (or Woman's) best friend" competition.
A tall, but short (lengthwise) wagon that can be had with all-wheel drive (except in our test car's SC trim), the Element offers an impressive amount of passenger and cargo space within its small footprint. Though this Honda will fit into parking spaces a Civic must pass up (the Element is a full 8 inches shorter), there's still enough room for four adults and, with two aboard, enough space to carry a trio of mountain bikes standing up.
Though initially aimed at the 20-to-30-somethings that are the darlings of vehicle product planners, the Element has managed to appeal not just to surfers and snowboarders, but shuffleboarders as well. Despite the marketing gurus' intentions, you're just as likely to see a gray-haired dad behind the wheel as you are a long-haired dude.
We sampled the SC trim level which, with its lowered and firmed-up suspension, is essentially a sport package for the Element. That may seem to make as much sense as fitting a running shoe's bottom to a work boot, but the result is a more entertaining drive than you'd expect from this phone booth on wheels.
The 2009 Honda Element doesn't have a monopoly on this odd but functional segment. Other choices include the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix fraternal twins as well as the Scion xB. Like the Element, they have the attractive quality of big room in a small package, while also seating (albeit tightly) one additional passenger. But those rivals don't have the Element's rugged styling or unique flip-to-the-side/removable rear seats that allow such a tall, unobstructed cargo area. If you're looking for a practical little wagon with some character, we'd be willing to bet that you'd take to the Honda Element like a kid to a Golden Lab — middle-aged or not.
Honda's workhorse 2.4-liter inline-4 sees duty in the Element where it's rated at 166 horsepower. Though the Element's dimensions may be petite, it's no lightweight. Tipping the scales at a pudgy 3,603 pounds, it weighs 46 pounds more than a Chevy Impala. Though a five-speed manual transmission is available on the standard SC, our navigation-equipped version comes with the otherwise optional five-speed automatic as standard. Running the 0-60-mph dash in 10 seconds, this powertrain provides adequate performance for everyday driving. If you're looking for a quicker box on wheels, consider the Scion xB, the track star of the segment, which can hit 60 in 8.2 seconds.
The automatic gearbox is smooth, if a little slow through its gearchanges, and downshifts take a deliberate prod of the throttle, ostensibly to optimize fuel economy. As with its curb weight, the Element's fuel mileage is not what you'd guess. The EPA figures stand at 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. We averaged 20 mpg in about 500 miles of traffic-biased driving. As far as braking performance goes, with a 128-foot stopping distance from 60 mph the Element hauls down respectably, with a solid, linear feel to the pedal.
With the SC's rather firm suspension settings, the Element felt relatively crisp and agile through a set of curves, taking them on in a confident, entertaining fashion. A relatively quick and precise steering setup with plenty of heft in the wheel also contributed to this Element's sporty feel.
Up front, the buckets feature substantial side bolsters, which do a good job of hugging occupants in the turns. Oddly, one of our skinnier staffers said she felt pinched between the plump bolsters, though the general consensus was that the firmly padded seats were comfy enough. The rear seats offer plenty of under-thigh support (thanks to the tall seat height) and they recline. As they only seat two, they also have small side bolsters for additional support. The tall roof means there's enough headroom in the Element for a quartet of Celtics players.
Since our test car was the SC version of the Element (SC is supposed to stand for "Street Custom"), we expected the ride to be firmer than a non-SC trim, but it seems that the engineers may have been a bit overzealous. Sharp impacts occasionally got into the cabin, and at times the Element could get quite jiggly on concrete freeway expansion joints. Those moving from a sporty car to an Element SC may not even notice, but others may be put off and would be better served by a softer-riding Element LX or EX.
The Element features simple, well-located controls and ample storage spots. The gauges are large and easily read, the climate controls are the time-tested three-knob setup and the nav system is intuitive. There are also plenty of cubbies, even an open spot below the front cupholders. A back-up camera (which comes with the navigation-equipped trims) makes parking the diminutive Element even easier.
The audio system in the SC comes with 270 watts and seven speakers (including a subwoofer). Sound quality is good overall, though we expected more punch to the bass when we got crazy with the volume while listening to The Who's "Eminence Front." In addition to an auxiliary audio jack, Elements with the nav system also come with a USB input that allows you to control your iPod with the steering wheel controls. It gets the job done, but it takes awhile to scroll through playlists, and there's no podcast listing.
A few minor quibbles include door pockets with an open, slatlike design that annoyingly allow papers to slip out when trying to stow them, the passenger door has no power lock button, the steering wheel's audio controls only have a track/preset "up" function and though the steering wheel tilts, it was still too close to the seat cushion for some of our bigger editors. Also, the clamshell doors can be difficult to use in parking lots. Since the front door has to be opened in order to access the rear, climbing into the back often becomes a dance around people, doors and parked cars.
Carrying our standard golf bag and large roller suitcase were no problem for the Element's cavernous cargo area. Beyond the door dance, thanks to the generous distance from front to rear seats as well as the high ceiling, installing a child seat was likewise a breeze. The rear seats flip to the side and are also removable, but doing either can be an awkward and heavy job that some folks may not have the muscle and/or leverage for. Maximum cargo capacity is an impressive 75 cubic feet, which is more than that of some midsize SUVs.
Design/Fit and Finish
Though little has changed since its debut back in 2003, the Element received a slight refresh to its mug this year. A smoother hood flows back from the new Honda Pilot-inspired grille and headlights, and the taillights are revised as well. To our eyes, it's a nice progression of the styling — less Tonka-toylike than before, though still rugged enough so guys won't feel slighted when they climb behind the wheel.
With the SC, you get unique color options as well as 18-inch alloy wheels, a monochromatic paint scheme (no black bumpers here) and a different front fascia. Inside the SC's cabin, the gauges feature copper-colored rings (titanium is also available) along with piano black accents for the center stack and console. The upholstery also contains copper accents, in the form of haphazard, laserlike lines. Although much of the Element's cabin is covered in hard plastic, overall build quality of our tester was excellent, with even gaps and graining.
Who should consider this vehicle
Cycling enthusiasts, recycling enthusiasts and yard sale enthusiasts. Also city dwellers who want something easy to park that can handle four adults and a lot of their stuff.