By Lary Coppola
When I first saw the advance photos of the Honda Element back in about 2001 or so, I thought to myself, “They must be joking. That thing is butt ugly.”
Built in Ohio, and Honda’s least expensive sport utility vehicle (SUV), the Element received extensive upgrades in 2007, including a horsepower boost, new transmission, and a new, sportier SC model. In spite of the changes, the Element has remained your basic no-fuss vehicle.
I’ve driven this almost paramilitary looking box numerous times over the years since its debut, and frankly, the more I’ve driven it, the more it’s grown on me.
Originally aimed at high-spending Gen-Y males, the Element also appeals to some middle-aged women, as well as proving itself to be a highly functional vehicle for the young family on the go. The Element has become a staple in the Honda lineup, and makes up a large proportion of first-time new vehicle buyers.
Let’s fact it, no Honda buyer is taking a big risk where the actual mechanics are concerned — and the Element is no exception. It’s based on Honda’s well-proven CR-V, but is more functional because it merges the features of an SUV and pickup with a car’s fuel economy and overall performance.
Walkaround: What can you say? It’s a box on wheels that comes in pleasing colors. Thankfully, that awful plastic cladding that graced about half of the exterior became history several years ago.
The Element is offered in both front and 4-wheel drive versions. The base model is the LX and there’s a more upscale EX trim level, and the sportier SC.
My first thought when I saw the rear “suicide doors” open (Honda calls them “clamshell” doors) was that if it had a drain plug in the floor, you could just hose the whole thing out and call it good.
Speaking of those doors, they have no visible center post — it’s hidden inside the rear doors, making it easy to load cumbersome items such as surfboards or mountain bikes — not to mention lawnmowers and other more mundane and domestic items.
Interior: The interior is strictly no-nonsense. Instrumentation is simply straightforward and easy to read.
The shifter is easy to grab since it’s in the center of the dash much like some Lexus’ and Toyota’s. The climate and sound system controls are conveniently located and quite large. There’s no console, so the cupholders sit right on the floor, which is only a slight annoyance.
The front seats provide above-average support and are pretty comfortable overall. The outside mirrors are fairly large, but the rear windows can impede vision from those mirrors because they swing out instead of sliding down due to structural reinforcements and various mechanisms in the rear doors.
The rear seats flip up to the sides to create a big cargo area, although they too block rear vision in that position. They can be removed or made to lay flat to form a lumpy bed with the folding front seatbacks. There’s also a very large, flip-up sunroof located in the rear of the vehicle over the back seats and cargo area.
The split rear tailgate bottom opens down to reveal an utterly flat, low load floor, which makes cargo loading a snap, while the upper part of the tailgate swings smoothly up on hydraulic struts.
The LX has features like an adjustable steering column and power front windows, door and tailgate locks. The standard audio unit is a 120-watt, 4-speaker, AM/FM/CD system, but a 7-speaker, 240 watt system with MP3 and WMA capability along with an auxiliary and USB jack is available on the EX and SC. Also standard are air conditioning, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels and power mirrors.
I’ve seen the Element described as a “rolling dormitory,” because the seats are covered with a waterproof material and the utilitarian urethane-coated floor resists dirt and water, allowing for easy clean up.
Under The Hood: The Element sports a high revving, 16-valve, 2.4-liter, 166-horse DOHC 4-banger that delivers spirited acceleration. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission offered. Gas mileage is in the mid-20s, which isn’t bad for a boxy, 3,500 pound, SUV with high-rev powerplant utilizing “short” gearing to boost acceleration.
Behind The Wheel: Surprisingly, it also handles much better than you might imagine, in spite of its high, boxy profile. One downside of the shape is wind noise gets excessive over about 65 mph.
I found the Element lots of fun to drive, with quick, power assisted steering. The brake pedal is a bit too sensitive, but stopping distances are short. While generally good, the ride becomes what you might initially expect from its appearance when on rough roads.
Whines: The windshield is huge, but you can’t see the front of the vehicle from the driver’s seat, which makes parking and other maneuvers in a tight area a bit dicey.
Bottom Line: No one is going to mistake the Element for a styling trend setter, but it has a unique character, is highly functional, fun to drive, reasonably priced for an SUV, and has become a mainstream crossover vehicle with surprisingly high appeal factor.