Don't believe everything you hear about the 2003 Honda Element. Honda is pitching this newest sport-utility vehicle exclusively at young men.
But other kinds of buyers—women and older guys—also may enjoy the Element, its novel features and its affordable, under-$17,000 starting price. First, though, they'll have to get past the Element's odd looks and barebones floor.
No "cute ute" here
The Element is a boxy SUV with a look all its own.
Honda officials say it's supposed to attract young guys, average age of 22, who are college graduates and single and who are busy with friends, sports and hobbies. But the ugly duckling mix of gray/metallic-looking composite body panels here and there that break up the Element's paint scheme do have another purpose besides providing two-tone styling.
Made of polypropylene and devoid of paint, these panels resist scratches, so items like shopping carts can be safely propped against them. And those jerks who park next to you in parking lots and bang their doors into your vehicle may not leave a mark if the doors strike these composite pieces. The same can't necessarily be said for Honda's popular CR-V SUV or myriads of other SUVs.
Still, riders will quickly notice inside the lack of carpeting on the Element floor. Coated in urethane, the Element's floor is utilitarian, scratch-resistant and can be swept out with a broom and washed out by a wet cloth.
Unique side doors
The Element has unusual side doors, too, that can make loading big items much easier than in other SUVs. The two front doors on the Element are about normal-sized and open using front hinges. But the smaller rear doors operate clam-like, using rear hinges, and open all the way to a much-appreciated 90-degree angle.
Because there is no stationary structural pillar at the opening, this best-in-class, 55.5-inch-wide opening is not blocked in any way. It's a real bonus when you're struggling to get a large television box or awkward-shaped antique piece inside.
Note, though, that the rear doors can be opened only after the front doors are opened. An aside: Decades ago, rear-hinged side doors carried an unflattering name: Suicide doors.
Honda officials call the doors on the Element "side cargo doors," and they point out that the Element is designed with a reinforced vertical beam in the structure of the rear doors to help provide side-crash protection. Lower side sills back there and floor and roof cross members are strengthened, too.
In fact, Honda officials said they expect the Element to a "achieve five-star side-impact rating, the highest possible from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration." But at the time of this writing, because the Element is so new, NHTSA has yet to report crash test results.
Beds on board
If you've ever traveled a long distance and needed a quick nap to refresh, you'll also appreciate the Element's two built-in beds.
Basically, each materializes when the front and rear seats on one side are all reclined fully. Because the front and rear seats match up and touch in this configuration, there's a lengthy, nearly flat resting spot that worked quite well for a snooze for me. The Element's rear seats are noteworthy another way, too. They can be folded up against the side walls inside, one at a time, when you need more cargo room. So, it's a snap to get them out of the way and keep a flat floor for loading items.
The Element's front seats are covered in a waterproof-coated fabric, by the way. So snowy clothes won't dampen the seats. But I found this fabric to be cold-feeling to the touch, even on non-wintry days, and my purse and books slid off the front passenger seat easily and crashed to the floor when I stopped too quickly.
Rear seats in the Element have vinyl coverings and have an amazing amount of legroom—39.1 inches. There's only 32.8 inches in the second row of the Nissan Xterra, in comparison. And the two rear-seat riders in the Element sit up quite high. They even look down a bit on the front-seat riders. But note that rear-door windows open only a crack, like the back windows on many minivans.
Not a refined ride
Don't expect a cushioned ride in the Element.
Offered in front-wheel drive and available with Honda's Real Time four-wheel drive, the Element shares a lot of road bumps with passengers. In fact, I felt road bumps regularly in the test vehicle. On serious road bumps, the ride could be harsh. There's plenty of road noise, too.
But the front-wheel-drive Element held the road in aggressive curves with more gusto than I expected. The unnervy, tippy feeling that I figured would come quickly in this 74-inch-tall vehicle didn't really materialize as I had feared. Overall, while at the steering wheel, I felt like I was driving a squar-ish, tall room down the road.
The Element's platform is modified from the CR-V and the Element's track is wider. The front suspension uses MacPherson struts, while a double wishbone does duty at the rear. Tires, rather plain-looking, are all-season 16-inchers.
Four-cylinder engine only
The Element's only engine—a 2.4-liter double overhead cam four cylinder—uses Honda's intelligent Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Lift Control (i-VTEC) to get the most performance it can for low rpm torque and higher rpm horsepower.
Peak horsepower here is 160, which compares with 143 horses in the four-cylinder-powered Xterra. Note, though, that the Xterra, like many other entry SUVs, also offers a higher-power six cylinder.
The Element's maximum torque is 161 foot-pounds at 4500 rpm. The Xterra four cylinder has maximum 154 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm. But I frequently heard the Element's four cylinder buzzing and straining when I'd slam on the accelerator to try to get past another driver, and I didn't get past very quickly.
Towing capacity for the Element is 1,500 pounds, and preliminary fuel economy ratings for the test, two-wheel-drive model with smooth-shifting automatic are 21 miles a gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
Pricing is attractive
The starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of less than $17,000 makes the Element quite affordable. This is some $2,800 less than the previous lowest-priced Honda sport utility, the 2003 CR-V.
It's less than Nissan's Xterra, whose starting MSRP, including destination charge, is more than $18,500. And the Element's starting price is less than the Jeep Liberty's starting price of nearly $18,000.
But note the base Element DX, like the base Liberty, doesn't include air conditioning as standard equipment. And remote keyless entry is an extra on all Element models.
There's seating for four inside the Element, not the usual five seats found in other SUVs. And there's wind noise in the Element at highway speeds.
Lastly, it's a long reach down for someone my size—5 feet 4—to a coffee cup or soda placed in the front cupholders of the Element. These cupholders, you see, are mounted down at the floor between the front seats, not in some fancy center console.