TechnoFILE is copyright and a registered trademark © ® of
Pandemonium Productions.
All rights reserved.
E-mail us Here!
Honda Element

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 company’s new crossover vehicle is, if nothing else, unique and interesting, but whether or not it’s 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 we’d notice it if it were there!

That doesn’t mean it won’t sell, of course, and being a Honda it probably will. And it will undoubtedly please its owners.

I just don’t really understand why.

Here’s what Honda says about the Element’s raison d’etre: “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 don’t 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 Honda’s traditional quality and attention to detail.

Or is it? One of the things I’ve 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.

Honda Element

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 I’m 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, I’ll 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 Honda.

On my tester, which didn’t come with a keyless entry system (it’s optional, though), you can’t lock the driver’s 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 can’t unlock both front doors from the outside of the driver’s door; you have to either use the lock inside the driver’s door or reach all the way over to the passenger side (which for me was an excessively long stretch - virtually impossible).


Honda Element

There’s no driver’s dead pedal, either, nor is there side bolstering on the seats to help hold you in during spirited cornering. And the steering wheel, while it’s comfortable and offers a reasonable view of the instrument panel, doesn’t tilt up or down enough to be really worthwhile. And when I got the driver’s seat adjusted to a comfortable position for my rather short frame I’d 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 I’d 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 that’s right beside your head when you turn to shoulder check. Other than that, however, the greenhouse is excellent.

That’s the downside. And as I mentioned, it’s all pretty minor stuff, but when you add them all together it made for the first Honda that wasn’t a blast to have.

On the upside, there’s plenty to love here, too. Based on the terrific CRV, though shorter and higher, there’s 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 that’ll wipe down easily. Honda says the cargo area can accept items up to 10 feet in length and I believe them.

Honda Element

The Element’s 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 isn’t 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, there’s a lot more to like about it, too. You sit up fairly high, in a driving position that’s a cross between a car, an SUV and a bus, and this gives you a great view of the road ahead.

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, Honda’s 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 you’d 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, it’s fine; it shifts very well, too.

A four speed automatic is available for those who choose not to have fun while driving…

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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 driver’s 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 I’ve heard in a Honda - though for some reason there’s 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 driver’s reach.

Steering is variable power assist rack and pinion and the Element has a small turning circle that’ll 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 bars.

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 doesn’t display any ugly surprises other than the body style - and that’s 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 it’s doing than I do.

Nah, how could that be? I’m 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.


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think













Support TechnoFile
via Paypal
TechnoFILE's E-letter
We're pleased to offer
our FREE private,
private E-mail service.
It's the "no brainer"
way to keep informed.

Our Privacy Policy