Honda Element EX (2003)

"It's an incredibly utilitarian vehicle that's got it all---all-wheel drive, plenty of power, funky looks, and a low price. Good job, Honda!"
Good: versatile, plenty of power, great price.
Bad: rattling doors, seats are difficult to remove

The Honda Element is part wagon, part SUV, part psychedelic milk truck. Whatever it is, we like it. It's cheap, exceptionally utilitarian, and comes with Honda reliability. In terms of its place in the car universe, it reminds us a bit of a modern day VW Microbus. That, too, was cheap, funky, and very practical. But unlike the Microbus, the Element is safe, plenty powerful, heated and cooled inside, and it'll start every day.

The Element is a deal. The EX version we tested came fully loaded, including all-wheel drive and automatic transmission, for a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $20,850. The base model has a suggested retail price of only $16,100.

The Element driving experience is excellent and very much what you would expect from a Honda. In other words, the Element does exactly what you want it to, and you don't have to think about it. Acceleration is great, and there's plenty of power in the four-cylinder, 160-horsepower engine. The transmission is very, very smooth. You don't even feel the shifts. The version we tested also came with all-wheel drive, which provides bad weather traction.

It doesn't have sports car handling, but it stays flat enough in turns that you never have to plan for "coming about" like you do in some tall vehicles. Of course, if you corner aggressively it will lean, but around normal corners there's no problem at all. Overall, we thought it handled very well. The Element's brakes are better than average for a heavy 3,500-pound car. We didn't measure stopping distance, but the Element seemed to stop more quickly than other vehicles at this weight.

Even though the Element has a ton of room inside, it's not a large vehicle. It's considered mid-sized. Believe it or not, it's six inches narrower and 20 inches shorter than an Accord sedan. Much of the sense of space inside comes from the Element's unique interior design and its height. The effect is to make you feel like you've got all the room you could possibly need for stuff, but not to make you feel like you're driving a truck. We had no trouble parking or maneuvering the Element in city traffic.

The Element is an extremely versatile vehicle. Honda incorporated the B pillar, which is normally between the front and rear doors, into the front opening second door. So, if you like, you can open the front door and the smaller rear door, leaving a huge opening for getting stuff into the vehicle. We found this design to be great for loading packages. There's no need to walk around the back door. Instead, just flip open the doors and toss in your junk behind the front seat! It's also very easy to get into the front or the back.

The doors do require that you open the front door before opening the rear door. For the passengers in the back, that can be a real hassle when the time comes to get out.

Note to dog owners--the floor is very low and flat, and that front opening rear door is perfect for old Rover. You open your door; then open the back door, and the pooch just steps right up into the back. The low floor and easy access are especially great if your dog is old or small and has trouble jumping up onto a tailgate of a traditional wagon or SUV (Note to Honda: Not that we would ever allow a dog in a test car).

One concern: The doors on the Element we test drove were already rattling along the joint where the front and rear doors meet, making us wonder about the long-term integrity of these doors. It could be that we got a pre-production model, or it could be a problem Honda will eventually fix. But since this is a new design, it's something to keep an eye on.

The floor in the Element is nicely thought out. It's the same level all the way from behind the front seats to the rear hatch. Open the side doors, and you have easy access to the entire interior of the vehicle. That makes for dramatically easier loading and unloading of junk. The floor is also a rubberized material, making it easy to clean up spills or dirt. After you bring home your new rhododendrons, you'll be able to just sweep out the back instead of lugging out the vacuum.

The back seats fold so many ways, we lost count. The Element comes with two, permanent front seats, and two variable rear seats. If you need the Element for cargo, you have two options. The first is to fold the rear seats up and hook them to the sides with a metal clip. If you have a Hungarian weight lifter nearby that's all the better, because it requires a fair amount of strength to secure the seats. (Getting them unhooked is just as challenging.) This is something Honda will have to improve upon in coming versions.

Alternatively, you can also remove the rear seats--but that's an even bigger pain in the tuchus, but preferable if you really use your Element for cargo. You'll have more room that way, and visibility out the sides.

The Element has a number of smaller, very nice touches. There's a rear skylight that opens for ventilation -- and for scoping out the opposite gender at the beach. A big subwoofer is built into the bottom of the center console, so the (standard with EX) stereo sounds great. Honda has always been the leader in the field of little storage spaces, and they've outdone themselves this time. Every nook and cranny has a little storage bin of some kind. There are storage compartments on either side of the steering wheel, all across the front passenger compartment, in both doors, and above your head between the front seats.

The ergonomics in the Element are superb. The radio is right up top and simple to operate with two knobs. There are three nice, big knobs for the heating and air-conditioning.

There are storage compartments everywhere, and cup holders are located between the seats, Lights, wipers and related controls are exactly where you'd expect them to be.

Instead of placing the automatic transmission shifter in its usual location as part of a console on the floor, Honda has positioned it coming out of the dashboard. We really liked this arrangement. It's convenient, and it also makes for more room between the seats.

One problem: Shorter people might feel like they're low to the ground because the Element's high beltline (the "bathtub effect" of having the bottom of the windows around shoulder level).

The Element looks sort of like a milk truck -- but a very cool, hip milk truck. It's supposed to be a dorm room on wheels, and we think that's exactly the feel Honda has achieved. They've done a magnificent job with the Element.

When we drove the Element, a fairly large number of people seemed to really love it and were intrigued with it. Most of them, however, were men under 40. (One young woman described it as "trying too hard to be cool.") We have to give Honda particular credit for attracting a younger crowd without simply dropping a huge engine in a car. That's the quick and easy (and dumb) way to attract attention in the marketplace. Like the Mini, and like Toyota with the Prius, Honda did it the hard way, by making a unique, interesting vehicle, and we tip our hats to them.

Like all Hondas, we fully expect the Element to be exceptionallyreliable.

The Element is going to be great to work on. There's oodles of room under the hood, which will make servicing a breeze. Plus, Honda has a great reputation for giving service some forethought and designing the engine compartment accordingly. Finally, there are not a lot of complex bells and whistles with the Element, so almost any reasonably trained mechanic should be able to perform basic maintenance.

We think Honda has a real winner with the Element. It's versatile, cool looking, reliable, all-wheel drive, and at $22,000, it's a heck of a good deal.

Carmakers have been on a horsepower kick over the last few years. They're trying to excite people with power. With the Element, Honda has created an exciting new vehicle that's not simply pandering to the testosterone crowd with higher and higher horsepower bragging rights. Honda has made a new kind of vehicle. GM made an attempt at this approach by modifying their minivan chassis and creating the Aztec, but they came up short--and ugly. The Element, however, succeeds admirably. It's an incredibly utilitarian vehicle that's got it all---all-wheel drive, plenty of power, funky looks, and a low price. Good job, Honda!

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