The four-seat Element received a raft of changes last year (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model), including updated styling and a beefier drivetrain. More important, it added new safety features like side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system — both sorely needed, and enough for me to give the oddball Honda an unequivocal thumbs-up.
New Styling, SC Trim
The Element lineup includes LX, EX and SC (for "Street Custom") variants. The LX and EX come with front- or all-wheel drive, while the SC comes only with front-wheel drive. I drove a 2007 Element SC last year and an '08 all-wheel-drive Element EX.
While the LX and EX sport modest headlights and a twin-bar grille, the SC has an entirely different face. It looks like a tuner shop had its way with things: We're talking menacing headlights, a darkened grille, 18-inch wheels, monochromatic ground effects and a sport-tuned suspension.
All Elements are powered by Honda's familiar 2.4-liter four-cylinder, with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes 166 horsepower and 161 pounds-feet of torque.
I drove the automatic in both the EX and SC, which pairs nicely with the four-cylinder. In normal driving, it consistently holds gears a few moments long, allowing drivers to wring out a bit more power than they could with an early-shifting transmission. Some of the transitions can seem abrupt, but the payoff comes in peppier low-speed acceleration — even with all-wheel drive, which adds some 135 pounds, or about 4 percent, to the Element's weight.
The gas pedal is quite touchy, something I've experienced in other four-cylinder cars. This could be a result of drive-by-wire throttle, which the Element now has. Drive-by-wire allows the gas pedal to produce acceleration electronically rather than through a mechanical linkage, meaning it can open the throttle a lot in the first inch or so you step on the accelerator. This can make comparatively low-powered cars act adequately around town. When you floor it, though, you might find that there's not as much additional power as you expect.
The Element has some of this effect, though its engine — one of the smoother four-cylinders on the market — keeps it from feeling like a complete turkey. Even with a full load of passengers, I had sufficient oomph starting from dead stops. In the front-wheel-drive Element, hard acceleration can produce a touch of wheelspin and even some torque steer — a tendency slightly abated in the all-wheel-drive Element.
Onramp acceleration can best be characterized as leisurely. The engine revs high and drones loudly, but the car never seems dangerously slow. Driving solo, I had adequate power to merge onto the expressways near our Chicago offices. No doubt steep inclines or extra passengers could tip the balance.
Despite its wind-catching shape, the Element stays planted on the highway. The transmission kicks down with minimal delay, delivering acceptable, if noisy, passing performance. Bringing things to a halt are standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes. The pedal in my test car felt sure-footed, though not as strong as many Hondas I've driven. Shorter drivers, take note: The pedal's a bit high off the ground, and there is no power-adjustment feature to reposition it.
Depending on the transmission and driveline, highway gas mileage ranges from 23 to 25 mpg — on the low end, but not drastically so, for this segment. Note that these ratings are lower for 2008 thanks to the EPA's more-realistic testing procedures. Real-world mileage between an '07 and '08 Element should remain unchanged.
|EPA-estimated gas mileage|
|FWD 5-speed manual||18/23|
|FWD 5-speed auto||20/25|
|AWD 5-speed manual||18/23|
|AWD 5-speed auto||19/24|
Ride & Handling
With its sport-tuned suspension lowering the ride height by about 0.8 inches, the Element SC rides like a tightly sprung car — think economy go-cart, not luxury sports sedan. Speed bumps and potholes intrude both in noise levels and ride comfort, but the suspension seldom feels disconnected or trucklike. It mitigates body roll unexpectedly well, and it settles down on the highway, resisting undue disruption and making for a relatively quiet cabin.
The EX rides much more agreeably, without the SC's jarring motions over speed bumps. As you might expect, there is a bit more body roll in the corners, but the SUV never feels unnervingly top-heavy.
At low speeds, the steering wheel in either trim level has less power assistance than I've come to expect from Honda; some may find it too hard to turn for their tastes. Outside of parking lots and driveways, though, the wheel seems much more natural, with a well-weighted feeling when pointed straight ahead, and direct, fluid motions while cornering.
Pushed hard in turns, the Element's front-heavy weight distribution can easily send the front wheels plowing wide — it's known as understeer, which is to be expected in a front-wheel-drive car. In bumpier corners, the buttoned-down suspension in the SC does a fine job mitigating wheel hop, which can make many cars seem unduly skittish.
There's a reason the Element is a well-worn friend among outdoorsy types, weekend warriors and anyone else who needs a flexible cabin. Versatility is the name of the game: The seats can be configured in seemingly endless ways — from reclined flat, where they form a makeshift bed, to folded up against the sides for utility-van-style chambers. Maximum cargo volume is 77.1 cubic feet in a four-wheel-drive Element. That beats the maximum volume in the Toyota RAV4 (73.0 cubic feet), Subaru Forester (68.6) and Saturn Vue (56.4).
Turn them back into seats, and four occupants have room to stretch out. Frequent carpoolers should note that the Element is rated to carry anywhere from 1,017 pounds (FWD LX) to as little as 789 pounds (AWD EX), which four well-nourished occupants could easily exceed.
The second row is reasonably accessible through rear-hinged access doors. The seats have flimsy, low cushions and little thigh support, but the legroom is impressive. I much prefer it over the tiny backseat in Toyota's FJ Cruiser, an SUV with similar access doors.
The Element's utility continues up front, where storage nooks abound. SC models have a massive covered bin between the front seats, and all Elements have a three-tiered shelf above the glove box. In my SC test car, I counted 13 compartments — more than double what's in a typical car. The LX and EX have water-resistant seats; I poured some water on the fabric in my EX test car, and it beaded up for easy clean-up. The urethane-coated floors are awfully slippery, however, so make sure to secure the groceries in back before taking any corners. The SC has conventional carpeted floors and a urethane surface in the cargo area.
Functionality notwithstanding, I found little to like in cabin quality and ergonomics. Even after an update last year gave it new gauges and center controls, the dashboard has an industrial severity to it. It's presumably intended to appeal to the free-wheeling sorts Honda targeted when the Element debuted, but the upright facings and hard, dimpled plastics feel too cold and trucklike for the rest of us. Even truckmakers are pushing carlike interiors these days. Honda has already done so with the redesigned CR-V, and it's disappointing that the company didn't use the Element's restyling to warm it up a bit.
Safety & Long-Term Ownership
Of late, Honda has taken to loading every car it builds with safety features, an initiative the automaker calls "Safety for Everyone." Last year's Element finally received safety gear commensurate with the rest of the automaker's lineup, including an electronic stability system and rollover-sensing side curtain airbags. Other standard equipment includes four-wheel-disc antilock brakes and seat-mounted, side-impact airbags up front, as well as the mandatory dual front airbags.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Element its highest crash-test rating, Good, for frontal impacts. IIHS has yet to test the 2008 Element for side impacts.
Child-seat provisions include Latch child-seat anchors embedded in both rear seats. Top-tether anchors for both positions are mounted in the ceiling next to the liftgate, a position that, if child seats are installed, could reduce luggage space.
Long-term reliability is typically Honda's forte, and the Element doesn't disappoint. Consumer Reports predicts the 2008 model should prove "much better than average" for reliability. Using Cars.com's Total Cost of Ownership tool, a 2008 Element SC is projected to cost $41,698 to own for five years, including depreciation. That's less than the Subaru Forester 2.5 X ($42,139) — despite the Forester's lower purchase price — or even a front-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4 Sport ($41,807). A less expensive front-wheel-drive Saturn Vue XE comes in at a predicted $41,705 for five years.
The two-wheel-drive Element LX starts at $18,980 without the destination charge. Standard features include power windows and locks, water-resistant front seats, heavy-duty urethane floors, air conditioning, cruise control, a CD stereo and remote keyless entry. The $20,990 EX adds body-colored exterior cladding for a more uniform appearance, as well as 16-inch alloy wheels, water-resistant fabric for the backseat and an upgraded stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. Adding all-wheel drive ($1,400) to either model also gives you a fixed glass skylight over the cargo area. No conventional moonroof is available.
At $22,775, the Element SC adopts modified exterior styling and a sport-tuned suspension, as well as 18-inch wheels, piano-black interior trim and red gauges. The urethane floors and waterproof seats are dropped for regular fabric and carpets, but the center console gets another 12V outlet. (Fewer kayaks, more … boom boxes?)
On any trim level, substituting an automatic transmission for the manual adds $800.
Element in the Market
The Element was quite the character when it arrived early this decade. Today's model doesn't have quite as much offbeat charm, perhaps because there are now equally goofy alternatives, but its core strengths — versatility and reliability — are among the best on the market. Now you can tack safety on the list, too.
If there is a knock against Honda, other than high prices and the occasional poorly positioned control, it's uninteresting styling. That the Element bucks that trend — and doesn't botch anything big along the way — is indication that it's as much of a winner as you can expect from the brand.
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