As with the other models, the 2007 Honda Element SC can in minutes change roles from a four-seat people mover to a surprisingly big cargo hauler. Likewise, it delivers sedan-style driving dynamics and good fuel economy, at least by SUV standards. However, the SC is not a muddy boot, hose-it-out kind of vehicle, and it's dropped any pretense of all-terrain capability. Clearly, the Element has evolved.
Launched as a 2003 model, the Honda Element was originally aimed at young adventurers who need to haul wet or messy gear within the security of an enclosed cargo area. Its durable, quick-clean interior was a big part of its charm, rather than a strippo-model drawback. Low step-in height made loading mountain bikes or surfboards or big dogs easy, and vinyl flooring made it extra dog-friendly. Dark vinyl fenders and heavy cladding made stone chips or brush scrapes a non-issue. But young surfer boys weren't the only ones attracted to the utility and cuteness of the Honda Element. Other folks saw the benefits of roomy box that got good gas mileage and was easy to park.
The utility benefits mentioned above still apply to the 2007 Element LX, an unadorned base model. And to a considerable extent those benefits still apply to the high-trim EX. Starting with the 2006 models, however, the EX models began rolling out of the factory with painted fenders and cladding, though the bumpers and roof trim remained basic dark vinyl.
Now comes the Element SC, the first model with a fully painted exterior and cloth upholstery. Its suspension is lower and stiffer for improved handling, and it has big 18-inch wheels.
All 2007 models benefit from a major infusion of safety features, including curtain-style head protection airbags for front and rear passengers and Vehicle Stability Assist for improved driver control, making them the benchmark for small utility vehicles. With these upgrades, Honda completes its Safety First marketing initiative, which it claims gives all its vehicles luxury-grade safety features.
A new five-speed automatic transmission for 2007 and a slight increase in horsepower improves throttle response. Despite its utilitarian roots, the Element has always driven more like a car than a truck. Think of a base Honda Civic sedan with softer springs and a higher driving position and you won't be far off. The Element is a fine little automotive appliance. Dressed up as the SC model, it has a little more style.
Honda Element LX ($18,900); LX 4WD ($20,300); EX ($20,910); EX 4WD ($22,310); SC ($22,695)
The new, 2007 Honda Element SC model features a monochromatic paint scheme and fully painted exterior panels. It's also lowered by nearly an inch compared to other Element models, and finished with aggressive 18-inch spoke wheels and projector beam headlamps. The SC is available in exclusive Root Beer Metallic paint, and it takes utilitarian chic in a new direction.
The Honda Element's shape proudly proclaims its utility. It's a basic two-box design, with a small box for the engine and a much larger box for four passengers and their stuff or two passengers and a lot more stuff.
Its profile is unlike anything else on American roads. From the front, the Element has a cheeky, chunky look accentuated by rectangular headlights and the unusual design of the bumper. 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.
Further distinguishing the Element LX are the dark gray panels used for the front and rear fenders, front fascia, and rocker panels. They're made of a scratch- and dent-resistant composite material. These panels are painted to match the body color on the Element EX, diluting the Element's function-first look just a little.
The tailgate is split horizontally. The top half lifts like a hatch, while the bottom half drops like a tailgate. Honda suggests the lower half can be used as a seating surface for parties. That's a fine idea, but the tailgate has its drawbacks. It effectively raises the liftover height for cargo in the rear, and it requires a little more leaning to heft larger objects into the back. That said, there remains an impressive amount of cargo space in the Element. With the easily removed rear seats taken out, it offers 74.6 cubit feet of storage space. That's more than the maximum available in much larger vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
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. In all, the Element makes a stylish box, or at least a box with some personality.
The instruments in the new SC model have unique copper-hue back lighting, and the SC has conventional carpet in the passenger area, rather than black polyurethane sheeting. The SC also gets special fabric seat upholstery with a raised tattoo pattern.
Inside, the Honda Element is all about space, or maximizing usable space in a vehicle with a relatively small footprint. Its interior is designed to handle all combinations of people and stuff, from four full grown adults to two adults and mountain bikes or a couple of long boards. The front seats provide acres of headroom, and there's no center tunnel down the middle to get in the way.
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. The downside of this design is that rear-seat passengers have a harder time seeing signs and buildings. The have to hunch down and crane necks to see up through the windshield. This makes the Element a poor choice for taking visitors sightseeing.
The pillar-less, rear-hinged back doors are one of the most distinctive features of the Honda Element. Most vehicles have a B-pillar right behind the front seats, where the rear doors attach. 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 results in a shuffle when its time to drop rear passengers at their destination. Pull up next to a wall and your passengers might find themselves stuck in an unexpected, intimate party, as they all get trapped between the two open doors. Well, Stanley, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into.
Yet 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 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 also be removed, and without tools. Because they're relatively light, it's easy to stash the back seats in the garage, for example when making a trip to the home-improvement store.
The front-passenger seatback can be folded forward to make room for a 10-foot surfboard, which still leaves 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.
The floor in LX and EX models is covered with urethane-coated material that resists water, dirt and scratches, and is easily cleaned. The seats are covered in a waterproof material designed for easy cleaning as well.
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 and keep them from sliding around. Cup holders can be found on the backs of folded seats. A cargo organizer and cargo nets are offered 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.
This engine revs freely and likes running near the high end of the tachometer. Yet Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing system give this four-cylinder good acceleration lower in the rev range, and power comes fairly evenly all the way from idle to the redline on the tach. (This same engine is used in the CR-V.)
The increase in power for the 2007 models is welcome. While it has one of the stronger four-cylinders available, the Element is much heaver than the typical small sedan. There's plenty of power for the daily grind, but the Element won't win many stoplight showdowns. Adding a couple of 150-pound dogs, or loading the cabin in any fashion, noticeably affects acceleration performance.
We like the manual transmission. The shifter is mounted up in the dashboard like in some of the latest rally cars, and it's easy to use. The manual allows a driver to optimize the engine's performance, and it makes the Element more fun to drive. It's more fun than the automatic.
However, the new five-speed automatic is definitely an improvement over the previous four-speed. Upshifts are smooth and downshifts are relatively quick. More importantly, the extra gear helps keep the engine in the most productive part of its power band more often, without a decrease in overall fuel economy.
The Element is a front-wheel-drive vehicle with a fairly powerful engine, so there is a touch of torque steer: a tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration. It's not the least bit troublesome, but in most locales we would choose Honda's Real Time 4-Wheel Drive.
This all-wheel-drive system makes the Element a good winter car in the Snow belB. And while the Element is by no means an off-road vehicle, the LX and EX models have sufficient ride height and ground clearance for primitive roads. They can be good vehicles for remote camping trips. The all-wheel drive doesn't add too much weight, so it doesn't greatly diminish fuel economy.
The Element is wider than the typical small sedan, and it handles curves well for a relatively tall vehicle. In nearly all circumstances it's pleasant, even fun, to drive.
The new Element SC has a lowered, firmer suspension and slightly quicker steering for more responsive handling on pavement. It borders on what we'd call sporty, and it actually acquits itself well on an autocross competion course. It understeers (or pushes) noticeably, meaning a driver's natural reaction is slow up and turn the wheel more, but so do most front-drive cars. Push the Element SC fairly aggressively, and it's at least predictably consistent in its responses. There is a downside to the SC's sportier suspension tuning, however. While the steering is surprisingly quick for a vehicle of this type, the springs are still fairly soft, with quite a bit of suspension travel. The result is a little of what we call the tricycle effect. Jerk the Element SC's steering wheel sharply and it will change direction quickly, but the driver will feel a pronounced plowing effect, as if the nose is diving toward the pavement. Nothing to worry about, just something to get familiar with if you have visions of autocrossing your Element SC.
Further, in certain circumstances, the ride can be very bouncy. This applies to all Elements, but particularly the SC, which has firmer shocks. Most of the time it's not a concern, but on certain roads with repeating seams or indents that create a washboard effect, the SC can get bouncing like a baby buggy, to the point that the driver's foot will actually bounce on the gas pedal with the
Even with the new SC model, the Honda Element is a utility first vehicle. It's designed to maximize space and people/cargo hauling options in a fairly small package, with driving characteristics similar to a small sedan and optional all-wheel-drive for a measure of security. It offers easy access for people or cargo, and the wash-an-wear interior on the LX and EX models is great for camping and dogs. We find Element's styling distinctive. In total, it's a good vehicular appliance, and the new SC model adds a notch more attitude.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie reported from Santa Barbara, California; with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit and Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.