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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By David Thomas
March 24, 2010
Not every car shopper is looking for a built-in dog kennel and other canine-friendly accoutrements in their next compact SUV. But for that small niche of dog owners who are, there's only one real option: Honda's Element with its new Dog Friendly Package.
A simple $995 add-on to the LX and EX (the sportier SC can't be equipped with it) transforms the Element into a dog taxi with no rival.
We last reviewed the Element in 2008, when it received its last significant update. You can read that review, which tackled the SC trim, here, or check out a comparison of the 2010 and 2009 models here. What Is a Honda Element? The Element is a bit of an aging design, and that shows in its somewhat-cheap-feeling interior, which isn't up to snuff with more modern Hondas. The boxy shape, though, is a utilitarian's dream. The fold-to-the-side rear seats allow for a truly flat floor that's great for weekend athletes' bikes or other gear, as is the plastic floor itself.
If you're camping, the front and rear seats fold down to form a makeshift bed.
It's this type of Transformers-like action that makes the Element an endearing car despite its somewhat anemic four-cylinder engine, which is less powerful and less efficient than the four-cylinder in the Honda CR-V. Comparable trims of the CR-V cost about $1,000 more than the Element.
You'd have to be someone who would take advantage of the Element's unique interior layout or smaller size — it's 10 inches shorter than the CR-V from bumper to bumper — to consider a purchase. What Makes an Element Dog-Friendly? Or you could be a dog nut. Now, the typical dog owner would be just as happy buying one of the many wagons or crossovers on the market that are available with optional dog gates to keep their four-legged friends in the cargo hold. That's most of us.
Others, well, they may have a dog who needs the serenity of the bolted-in, soft-sided dog kennel that comes in the Element's Dog Friendly Package. It's a very well-designed kennel with a deeply recessed water bowl (so it won't splash on the dog bed) and a built-in fan that keeps air circulating in the cargo area.
To my mind, this is the one stand-out feature of the package. My dog, Roxy — a 6-year-old Boxer — normally can't stand soft-sided kennels. She has a metal crate at home for when we're out, and she likes that just fine. When hopping into the Element, though, she seemed as comfortable in its soft-sided kennel as in her own. There is see-through mesh on the kennel, but its skeleton is more substantial.
There's a metal ramp that stows under the kennel for dogs who are unable to jump onto the lower tailgate. However, the dog won't be able to look out the windows from this vantage point once the tailgate is closed, as the crate sits below the windows. I really liked the Element's clamshell tailgate, too. The lower edge stuck out about 2 feet, which was the perfect distance for Roxy to jump up on and get into the kennel, but not so big I couldn't reach over it easily.
The second row gets a custom, removable seat cover that's water/dirt/drool/mud/fur-resistant and has little doggie logos on it. However, with the rear kennel bolted in, the rear seats can't fold to the side. This really hurts the potential utility of this vehicle; if you're planning to transport just yourself and your dog, or even one other passenger, an opened-up backseat area would be ideal for cargo, given the kennel will be taking up the traditional cargo area.
Dog owners with multiple dogs can buckle at least two more dogs into the rear seats using special dog harnesses — not part of this package, but readily available at pet stores — that attach to the seats.
Add dog-bone-adorned rubber floormats for both seating areas, and that completes the Dog Friendly Package. Does that seem worth $995?
I think it does, but only for potential buyers who fit into this overly dog-friendly niche. Performance As I mentioned earlier, the CR-V is a far superior vehicle if you're looking for a compact SUV and don't need such unique digs for your dog. The Element does offer a very high seating position with a rather low step-in height, which is nice for drivers who have a hard time getting into taller SUVs.
The driving experience is pedestrian. The 166-horsepower four-cylinder engine is buzzy, acceleration is dreadful, and there's a lot of wind noise — you are driving a box, after all — as well as road noise compared to newer competition and the CR-V.
Handling is surprisingly good for a tall, boxy design, and there isn't as much body lean as you might expect. Otherwise, there are so many truly exceptional compact SUVs on the market — CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Chevy Equinox — that it would be hard to recommend the Element on its driving chops alone.
Front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional. Safety The Honda Element is one of just four small SUVs to earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick Award for 2010. To get that rating, vehicles must score the top grade, Good, in front, side and rear crash tests, as well as a new roof-strength test.
The Element also includes standard stability control and seat-mounted side airbags for the driver and front passenger. Element in the Market It's safe to say that if you're hoping to win a ribbon at Westminster, you're the perfect person to buy this specialized Honda. For those who just occasionally tune in to dog shows on TV, however, this is likely overkill.