Honda designed the Element for young adventurers who need to haul wet or messy gear, but with the security of an enclosed cargo area. The Element combines those practical considerations with car-like performance and economy.
Its durable, scratch-resistant interior is a big part of the charm here. The seats are designed to get wet and the back seats can be easily removed, serving up a huge cargo area. Loading and unloading gear curbside is aided by the Element's low step-in height. These features also make the Element a good dog car. Canines can easily walk in through one of the side doors, the interior is dog friendly, and there's not much to damage or stain.
In spite of its utilitarian appearance, the Element drives more like a car than a truck, and it's built with components from the Honda Civic.
Honda introduced the Element as a 2003 model and there haven't been a lot of changes since, but the 2006 Element features a host of equipment changes and adds a new trim level called the EX-P.
Honda Element LX 2WD ($17,750); LX 4WD ($19,150); EX 2WD ($19,625); EX 4WD ($21,025)
Further distinguishing the Element are the dark gray panels used for the front and rear fenders, front fascia, and rocker panels made of a scratch- and dent-resistant composite material. These panels are painted to match the body color on the 2006 Element EX-P model, giving the Element a different look.
From the front, the Element has a cheeky, chunky look accentuated by rectangular headlights and the unusual design of the bumper. In profile, it has a shape unlike any other on American roads. The hood line is fairly low and leads to a steep windshield flowing into a gently curved roofline, while the rear tailgate is nearly vertical.
The tailgate is split horizontally. The top half raises like a hatch, the bottom half drops like a tailgate. Honda suggests the lower half can be used as a seating surface for parties. At times it almost seems to raise the rear load height. The Element's rear corners are nicely curved, so it doesn't look as chunky from behind. Large wheels help ensure the Element doesn't look like a minivan.
The rear seats are roomy as well. They're raised off the floor a couple of inches higher than the front seats, giving back-seat passengers better visibility over the front seats. However, we found rear-seat passengers complained about not being able to see signs and buildings; they have to stoop to see out the windshield. This makes the Element a poor choice for taking a group sightseeing.
One of the most notable features of the Element is its pillarless, rear-hinged back doors. A traditional vehicle would have a B-pillar right behind the front seats. With no B-pillar to get in the way, the Element offers unusually easy access to the rear seating area. For safety reasons, however, the rear side doors cannot be opened unless the front door has been opened first. Likewise, the rear doors have to be closed before the front doors can be closed. This design results in a shuffle whenever dropping off back-seat passengers because the front-seat occupants have to unbuckle their seatbelts and open their doors to let rear passengers in or out. Pull up next to a wall and your passengers will find themselves stuck in an unexpected, intimate party, as they all get trapped between the two open doors.
When it comes to moving cargo, the Element is truly is in its element. It's a great vehicle for getting groceries. The center-opening doors allow easy loading of bulky objects without having a pillar to get in the way. The rear seats fold down easily, and can be swung up to the side, leaving an uninterrupted flat floor space. The rear seats can be easily removed without tools and are relatively light, making it easy to stick them in them in the garage when cargo carrying is the mission. The front passenger seatback can be folded forward to make room for a 10-foot surfboard, which would still leave room for the driver and one passenger behind the driver: two surfers, two surfboards, in other words. All the seats, including the driver's, can be folded back to make a large double bed, though it's not the most comfortable bed we've slept in. When parked, the Element can be set up to serve as a giant locker for outdoor gear, a truly great feature. However, while the step-in height is low from the side, it's relatively high from the rear.
The floor is covered in a urethane-coated material that resists water, dirt and scratches, and is easily cleaned. The front seats are coated in a waterproof material designed for easy cleaning as well. The rear seats are covered with the same material on LX and EX models.
Storage areas abound. The backs of the front seats have large storage pockets. The seats on the driver's side of EX models also have bungee cords on the back to secure larger objects. This helps secure your gear so it isn't rolling around. Cup holders can be found on the backs of folded seats. Honda offers a cargo organizer and cargo nets as accessories.
With its flip down tailgate, the Element should be good for parking lot parties. In fact, a tailgate seatback is available as an accessory that makes the tailgate a more comfortable place to sit.
The Element is a good vehicle for moving canines. Pull up tight to a curb and dogs can step right into the large cargo area. We know several dog sitters in Los Angeles that use the Element to transport dogs, sometimes a half-dozen of them at a time. They throw down carpeted mats to give the dogs grip. D-rings and other tie-downs allow cross tethering. While the Element is a good, affordable vehicle for big dogs, it could be even better. Ventilation can be an issue. The rear passenger windows vent manually, so they don't offer much ventilation and the driver has to stop and get out of the
The engine provides plenty of power with the manual transmission. The manual transmission features a delightful shifter mounted up in the dashboard like in some of the latest rally cars.
The automatic transmission saps power from the engine, reducing the fun factor. We found this combination offered adequate power for busy freeways in Los Angeles, but adding weight to the cabin, like a couple of 150-pound dogs, noticeably affected acceleration performance.
Element is a front-wheel-drive vehicle so there is a touch of torque steer, that tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration, but it isn't a concern. A bigger issue was wheelspin in the wet. Step on the gas, and it's easy to spin the front wheels on front-wheel-drive models, particularly in the rain. Honda's Real Time 4-Wheel Drive cures this, so we recommend getting one of the 4WD models. The 4WD also gives the Element good winter weather capability.
The ride quality is bouncy. From an engineering standpoint, the Honda Element is basically a re-bodied CR-V; and the CR-V is built on the same platform as the Honda Civic. The Element has a slightly wider track than the CR-V, which helps it handle curves better than we expected of such a tall vehicle. The Element is not an off-road vehicle, but its ground clearance and ride height are sufficient for primitive roads.
The Honda Element is a compelling option for drivers who want a genuine utility vehicle that behaves like a car. Its versatile interior makes the Element quite handy in certain situations, with its easy access and flat floor that's easy to clean. We find its distinctive styling appealing.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California; Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.