Seven years has elapsed since I last tested a Honda Element, and not much has changed, except that the rest of the car world has improved.
The Element is a Coleman cooler on wheels, and it feels dated and unrefined. Never a mainstream car, with its quirky plastic box look, Element has its devotees – folks who like simple, uncluttered wagons or SUVs.
The tested EX model came in a dark metallic red trimmed in Element’s traditional gray plastic, giving it a toylike look. The special dog package included a paw print medallion on the side of the front fenders and rubber floor mats with dog bones sculpted into them. Behind the second seat was a special zippered dog kennel with cushion inside.
I could say this SUV was best-suited for dogs, but that would be a touch strong. It just feels underpowered and awkward.
The 2.4-liter iVTEC four-cylinder engine has 166 horsepower, which should be sufficient for a 3,641-pound vehicle. But acceleration, via a five-speed automatic transmission, is moderate and shifts sometimes are abrupt, not what I’ve come to expect from a Honda.
Handling is vague, with a fair amount of steering wheel play. There is some body lean from the boxy vehicle in hard turns, too.
The ride, meanwhile, is unforgiving. Crumbling area cement city streets with all their rough joints and frost heaves shake the Element more than other small SUVs and cars I’ve driven. You find yourself slowing whenever there’s a dip in the road.
That’s odd because Element has four-wheel independent suspension and 16-inch tires, so I would have expected a smoother ride.
Braking is fine, coming from four-wheel discs, and there’s also a stability assist program.
Gas mileage for a small SUV is OK. The EPA rates this at 19 mpg city and 24 highway. I got 22 mpg with about 60% highway driving.
A big inconvenience
The main knock all passengers had with the Element was its use of suicide doors – rear doors that open backward – opposite of the front doors. While that creates a huge entry area to climb aboard, the rear doors cannot be opened until the front doors already are opened. While it may be a help if you have small, active children, it seems like a big inconvenience to many.
The rear seat sits much higher than the front and is hard as a rock. No one liked sitting in back, and I suspect even older kids would complain after a half hour or so. The driver may also feel his rear view is compromised by the elevated passengers.
Passengers also did not like the awkward step over a deep support beam or rail at the foot of the doors. Jeeps are a bit like this, but the Element’s step-over was even more extreme than a Jeep Wrangler’s.
On the plus side, head and legroom are great front and rear. When no one is riding in back, visibility is superb, with big windows all around. I love the split rear hatch, which makes for easy loading and unloading. Take that kennel or dog crate out of the back and there are oodles of cargo room. Honda says 25.1 cubic feet of cargo space, and up to 75 cubic feet when the rear seats are lowered.
Pricing also is good for a roomy, small SUV with four-wheel drive. The base LX with four-wheel drive starts at $21,775 and a two-wheel drive LX begins at $20,525. All use the same drive train.
The tested EX starts at $23,885 and just added a $780 delivery charge to settle at $24,665. If you want some more goodies, upgrade to the SC model in two-wheel drive form and loaded with a navigation system, for $26,020 plus delivery.
Word is that Element drivers love its thick rubber mats throughout, plus an in-floor drain that makes it easy to clean. Just hose it out and away you go. That could be especially helpful if you are transporting dogs.
There are big storage bins overhead, sunglass holders and big map pockets in the doors. Outdoorsy folks may like all that, though they won’t have a ton of power to take this SUV off-roading.
As for comfort, the gray cloth seats are flat and comfortable up front, plus they have fold-down armrests. There’s a tilt steering wheel, simple gauges and big climate control knobs. Young families with toys and electronics to store may like the open dash with divided trays the width of the dash so you can load it up with odds and ends as you drive.
If you prefer to stand out in a crowd, the Element may do you well. But if you demand performance and comfort from your small SUV or wagon, shop around. There are many others that may better meet your needs.