Honda Element Review

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes
honda element review

According to market researchers, American car buyers are more likely to ask “will I look cool in this thing?” than “is this the most efficient way to get from point A to point B?” Despite Honda’s rep for building the automotive equivalent of sensible shoes, CEO Kochi Kondo understands that America’s love affair with the automobile gets kinky from time to time. Well if he didn’t before, he does now, after Honda’s bizzaro Element somehow found favor with American grey panther platform refugees. You can almost hear him at the karaoke bar singing “You gotta fight, for your right, to paaaaaarrty!”

The party-in-a-box that Honda named “Element” is seven inches shorter than the CR-V SUV upon which it’s based. As for its sheetmetal, while looking like a cross between a Hummer and an ostraciidae is not in and of itself horrendous, the Elements’ exterior is covered with acres of faux Rubbermaid. The plastic treatment makes the car look like it’s fresh out of a pick-and-pull. No wonder Honda’s started building more elemental (i.e. monochromatic) Elements (for $500 extra).

Unsuspecting Element passengers will attempt to push rubber squares rearward of the rear doors to gain entry. Not so fast, Mr. Bond. Those are not door opening devices. They’re hinges! Yes 007, Honda’s Urban only Activity Vehicle flummoxes aspiring occupants with rear “access panels” (a.k.a. suicide doors). This eccentricity makes egress in tight parking spots more monumental than Elemental. As Sheriff J.W. Pepper might say: back that Rubbermaid ass up boy, or they ain’t getting’ in.

Once you’ve been properly briefed and belted, your senses will tell you why Honda can sell just about anything, from lawn mowers to jet airplanes to a shoebox-on-wheels: build quality. The Element’s supportive seats are worthy of a far more expensive vehicle. In fact, every point of human interaction– air vents, switches and HVAC controls– have a solid feel that exudes quality. It’s a trick invented by Volkswagen, perfected by Honda.

There is a notable exception to the Element’s cavalcade of ergonomic excellence: yet another cheesy single/double-din radio. An optional subwoofer is probably the least satisfying answer to the challenge of listening to acoustic referencing only slightly better than Ye Olde Close N Play. In fact, Honda’s budget ICE machines must be keeping after-market radio shops in business.

Features designed for generations at the end of the alphabet include a textured urethane floor (which the manual warns you not to hose), rear seats that fold into a “bed” (for people 4’3” tall) and a flip down mini-tailgate (for mini-tailgate parties). Blingmeisters will appreciate the Element’s “copper” accents (in SC trim), “root beer” metallic paint and 18 inch wheels. You can also order an Element with Honda’s Real Time™ (as opposed to?) four wheel-drive system.

Honda fits the Element with their ubiquitous 2.4-litre i-VTEC four-cylinder engine, good for 166hp (up 10hp for ‘07) and 161 ft-lbs of twist. Pitted against 3500 lbs., rest to 60 mph takes around nine thoroughly unspectacular seconds. Unfortunately, full throttle stompage yields typical four-banger thrash.

The Element’s dash-mount stick shift may put out pistonhead noses, but it proves more entertaining than looks, location or rubbery feel would indicate. The five-speed slushbox is more fuel efficient than the manual (22/27 vs. 21/25 mpg) and only marginally less entertaining. The steering and ride are smooth, heavy and vague, and that’s OK. Anyone who wants to throw a 70.4” tall box into turns needs their head/license examined.

Honda claims that “just one glance tells you the Element was built for those who live their own unique way.” Apparently all these unique buyers need to haul large quantities of Styrofoam. With rear seats removed, the Element combines the cargo space of a Ford Transit with the weight handling capacity of a French poodle (675 lbs. max load). The Element will tow 1500 lbs., provided you’re willing to make the already slow vehicle into a four-wheeled glacier.

Young ‘uns descending upon Honda dealers with $20k-ish in hand (or Daddy’s AMEX) will pass right by the Element’s cousin the CR-V. The savvy shoppers amongst them will note that the new CR-V is only slightly more expensive. The extra money buys greater refinement and a fifth seat; better fuel economy, handling, resale value, visibility; and the ability to surmount more than a pebble on the road.

Still, you can’t blame Honda for capitalizing on the fact that common sense is not so common. And it must be said that the Element is an extremely safe vehicle, complete with five-star crash ratings, vehicle stability assist, all the latest braking nannies and airbags plenty. So when the younger set asks older Element drivers what they think about their whip, there is only one possible answer: safe!

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  • Dmulyadi Dmulyadi on Feb 06, 2017

    I owned one until a friend total it. I used to work for a bread distributor company. But as manager I don't need to deliver everyday just when there is overflow route that need help. I choose Element because it's spacious it fit 2 mountain bike and a folding bike inside plus 3 ppl. It fit a 2 family building water boiler inside and also I can stuff $2000+ of bread inside this car to do my job. I live in Manhattan and no garage. So street parking is not easy but if a civic coupe cannot fit that spot, I know for sure my element can fit nicely. I used it for car camping too back seats combine with front seat can turn into a nice bed for two adults. The only thing that I don't like about the car was fuel efficiency. I know I can't expect too much from a boxy car but underpowered and 4-5 speed auto? Come one why not diesel engine from Europe? Maybe with diesel engine and better transmission the towing rating can increase and it can be more attractive to more American buyers.

  • Rational Thought Rational Thought on Jul 22, 2018

    It's clear that the author and many others here have never actually owned an Element. The truth is, the Element is one of the most versatile cars on the market, is fun to drive (especially the 4WD version), is great for hauling anything, is great for outdoor activities, and is hands-down the best car for camping/roadtripping since the Volkswagon Vanagon Westfalia Camper. It is the only non-van I know with a flat rear surface that also provides a ton of head room. This means you can easily load (and strap down) bikes or other large objects, including a 4 wheeler ATV. I've even carried a 9+ foot paddleboard and 4x8 panel of drywall inside. The suicide / clamshell doors also make loading and unloading large objects much easier. And I've never noticed a lack of pep, acceleration or power. For me, it's most ideal for camping and watersports, though. I lived in my Element for 4 weeks in Florida last winter, touring the state. With the rear seats removed, the rear area is large enough for a slightly tailored full-size mattress, which can easily fit two people. The rear skylight means that it feels much more open and roomy in the back area, and you can see the moon and stars at night. The rear electric outlet means you can plug in various appliances, including a rechargable inverter battery to power fans, lights, a fridge, etc. There are pockets in the rear to stow necessary items, and hooks to hang lights/lamps from. The tinted rear windows and low floor provide privacy, and allow you to stealth-camp in a parking lot or residential street in a way a larger camper can't. You can easily attach a hatch tent or large mosquito net to the open hatch to expand the interior space further. (And the tailgate is a real tailgate which will comfortably seat two people.) It is, quite simply, the perfect camping vehicle, especially if you get the four-wheel drive for dirt roads. The large windows, skylight, flat low floor and high ceiling make the rear feel like a very livable clubhouse more than a car, and it's simply ridiculously comfortable chilling back there, with or without a significant other. If you're surf-camping, like I was, it's even better. The plastic/rubber interior means wet items don't cause a problem, and you can hang items from the hand-grips near the ceiling. You can even change out of your wetsuit or swimsuit by standing through the large removable skylight, with your bottom half covered by the tinted windows. And you can easily fit a 9-foot longboard inside the vehicle, and even still sleep in the back with the surfboard propped over the front seat and set against the windshield/dashboard corner. Basically, if you've always wanted a VW Westfalia Camper, this is the best modern alternative. It's more compact, but that's good for parking and turning. And it's far more rugged, durable, and reliable. (The plastic panels are great for going through woods or rough terrain without worrying about scratches or dings -- there's a reason they're there. And Elements are known to last for 300K miles with proper care.) You can even get a pop-top Ursa Minor conversion if you want to sleep on the roof, or have 4 people sleeping in the SUV. I would definitely recommend this as a gift for any young driver who enjoys outdoor activities and/or car camping. They could inexpensively, safely and comfortably tour the country (or Mexico, etc.) In terms of appearance, I didn't really like the look when they first came out, but it definitely grows on you. I personally find it more attractive than a Land Rover, Hummer, or any Van or station wagon (except maybe a Subaru). (And while Vans can haul similarly, they're not as nimble, compact or rugged, fun to drive, or easy to clean. You can't hose out the rear, but you can easily mop it out.) It's definitely unique, but so is anything else that's special. No problem with the stereo, power, etc. The *only* real problem I have with the Element is the fuel economy. I would love if it got closer to 30 mpg, vs. 20. But there's tradeoffs to anything, and there's nothing with a similar cargo/camping capacity that gets much better MPG. Would be nice if car reviewers actually experienced the cars they reviewed a bit before writing them up, so they could do so intelligently. At this point in time, it's hard for me to see myself ever not having an Element for camping, road-tripping and carrying large cargo, even if I eventually get a second car with better fuel economy for daily driving.

  • CEastwood Seven mil nitrile gloves from Harbor Freight for oil changes and such and the thicker heavy duty gripper gloves from Wally World for most everything else . Hell we used to use no gloves for any of that and when we did it was usually the white cloth gloves bought by the dozen or the gray striped cuff ones for heavy duty use . Old man rant over , but I laugh when I see these types of gloves in a bargain bin at Home Cheapo for 15 bucks a pair !
  • Not Previous Used Car of the Day entries that spent decades in the weeds would still be a better purchase than this car. The sucker who takes on this depreciated machine will learn the hard way that a cheap German car is actually a very expensive way to drive around.
  • Bullnuke Well, production cuts may be due to transport-to-market issues. The MV Fremantle Highway is in a Rotterdam shipyard undergoing repairs from the last shipment of VW products (along with BMW and others) and to adequately fireproof it. The word in the shipping community is that insurance necessary for ships moving EVs is under serious review.
  • Frank Wait until the gov't subsidies end, you aint seen nothing yet. Ive been "on the floor" when they pulled them for fuel efficient vehicles back during/after the recession and the sales of those cars stopped dead in their tracks
  • Vulpine The issue is really stupidly simple; both names can be taken the wrong way by those who enjoy abusing language. Implying a certain piece of anatomy is a sign of juvenile idiocy which is what triggered the original name-change. The problem was not caused by the company but rather by those who continuously ridiculed the original name for the purpose of VERY low-brow humor.