No Fixed Abode: What The Hell-ement?
“About twice a week, I’ll come out to the parking lot and see that somebody’s left a note asking to buy it,” Peter said, chuckling. “But the only reason I’d sell it would be to get a newer one. And the prices on those are even crazier. So I’ll keep it. Forever. It’s my car for life, no matter what else I buy or own or whatever.”
A devoted ultra-marathoner and trail-runner who thought nothing of running 30 kilometers on Saturday and then doing it again on Sunday, Peter was the photographer assigned to me on a recent project for another media outlet. He was (obviously) hugely fit, extremely disciplined, and very much in love with his car.
But what kind of car could inspire that kind of affection from a guy like Peter, to say nothing of all the parking-lot stalkers who keep trying to buy his car? Is it a Boss 302? A 458 Speciale? A pristine MkIV Toyota Supra Turbo? I’m afraid not. The belle of Peter’s ball is a homely little box of a car that, when it was new, rarely left a showroom without the assistance of a massive trade allowance, a flatbed tow truck, or possibly both.
This is the best example I can give you of the ineptitude with which the Honda Element was marketed and sold: after years of buyers complaining that the little box barely had enough power to keep up with West Coast freeway traffic, Honda introduced the “Element SC” with much fanfare. The Internet went crazy. Finally, a supercharged Element! One with enough power to go up a hill! No dice. The Element SC wasn’t supercharged. It didn’t even have any more power than the other Elements. It was just called the SC. And it cost more. Woo hoo.
It was always going to be a niche vehicle — how else can you describe a Civic-based box van with a max combined payload of 675 pounds? — but the Element’s first few years on the market were fairly successful.
And then Honda simply stopped paying attention.
After a half-hearted mid-cycle refresh at the five-year mark, the Element was left to die on the vine with no successor. As with the S2000, “lack of buyer interest” was the widely-cited reason; but since when did Honda buyers have any interest in buying something that hadn’t changed much for seven years? How popular do you think the 2008 Accord would have been if it had still been on sale in 2015?
I don’t know if the Element was always supposed to be a one-night stand, but I do know the car stirred strong emotions in its customer base. I had the opportunity to walk the glass-walled skyway that separated the front door of Honda’s East Liberty plant, home of the “E,” from its cafeteria. For perhaps a thousand feet, there were customer testimonials and letters about the little Honda box pasted up in such density as to block the sun and give the whole skyway a rather eerie feel.
As with those other Honda enthusiast flirtations, the NSX and the S2000, the Element has experienced a very strong second act in the used market. It’s extremely popular with the outdoor crowd of mountain bikers, campers, and hikers, thanks to its open interior and rubber-lined durability. A company called Ursa Minor will turn your Element into a pop-up camper for six grand. In conversation on the topic, Peter spoke of the Ursa Minor conversion in the sort of hushed tones once reserved for the discussion of saints’ relics. It’s easy for even a serial-Kimpton-ist like yours truly to see the appeal. You can live on the road forever in such a vehicle, while enjoying quarter-million-mile Civic-esque reliability and getting 25 miles to the gallon — not the eight you’d get from a truck-based camper.
Ursa Minor Camper
No surprise, then, that the Element has an NSX-ish level of retained value, particularly for well-maintained AWD examples with dealer service history. Also like the NSX, it’s the only Honda product that has any presence whatsoever with its particular buyer demographic. Last week, I rode a motorcycle from Portland to Denver via Wyoming and South Dakota (more on the later) and I found myself sharing the road, and a variety of restaurant parking lots, with dozens of Subaru Outbacks owned by outdoorsy types. These people are dead-set loyal to the Subaru; at a craft-beer place in Jackson, WY, I saw five Outbacks parked in a row. The sixth car? It was a Forester. But the Element also has nontrivial market and mindshare with these people, many of whom are fabulously wealthy but have a hereditary po’-mouthed approach to automobiles.
Whether they realize it or not, Honda needs to continue to do business with those people, in large part because the trustafarians will still be driving eclectic cars to Aspen long after most of us are fighting in the streets with our children at our feet. This argues strongly for the return of the Element, in one form or another. The only problem is that demographic can be overly fond of buying its cars used.
If there’s hope in that regard, it might come from the final conversation I had with Peter on the subject. “I looked at an Xterra, you know … too small inside. Just looked at a 4Runner, too. Same problem. And the Outback they sell now, well, doesn’t seem like much of an Outback. I’d buy a new Element if they’d bring it back.” Questioned as to price, his only response was, “Whatever it costs, I guess, if it’s not crazy.”
So there you have it. Bring back the Element, Honda. Earn the love of 30,000 people a year who will grow up to drive matched pairs of Acura MDXes. Get back in the game. If you can afford to do the HR-V, then you can definitely afford to do this. And since we’re in the forced-induction element, maybe now’s the time to make “Element SC” a reality. Sure, it would have to a turbo, but if Audi can put “V6T” on the side of supercharged cars, you could put “SC” on the tailgate of a turbo van. Everything’s up for grabs in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR! There are 36 genders! Cats and dogs living together! And brand-new cars with rubberized interiors! Call it the Element … of Surprise!
[Images: American Honda, Ursa Minor]
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I definitely see the appeal. It's exceptionally functional, and looks like it. It also drives nicely. I didn't need Jack's article to feel that way, although I very much enjoyed reading it.
I just drove my parents' Element yesterday. It wasn't the first time, but the first time I exceeded neighborhood speeds or 1 mile in distance. It's a 2003 EX AWD auto, silver/gray, that they've owned since new and it now has 143k miles. When it was new I sat in the rear seats and recall having plenty of room not just in leg space but also in width. This is most likely because they dispensed with the pretense of having a center seat in the rear. For a while this made sense because it allows the rear seats to each fold up against the side wall of the vehicle, but before long my parents (empty-nesters who are now in their early 60s, so stereotypical Element purchasers) removed the rear seats entirely and it exists as a 2-seat microvan. My mom wanted me to take it and fill it up with gas, because she hasn't pumped gas herself in about 25 years and my dad's working out of state on contract during the week but has recently been forced off the road by a retinal tear. The gas station is about 3 miles from their house, through a small town and then merge onto a divided 4-lane. Before I left the garage I was shocked at the sound and feel of closing the door. I had to reopen and close it again because I wasn't sure the door properly latched. Yeah, it always sounds that crappy. The stereo is a horrible muddy mid-bass booming mess but it's better than listening to the myriad squeaks and rattles. Once up to 60mph (FINALLY!) it was quite loud. Acceleration was a bit worrisome, but just barely adequate. Ride and handling was odd; the suspension seemed rather stiff as if it was intended to carry more load (it isn't) and jarred a bit on minor bumps. Steering was as ponderous as my 88 Dodge with loose steering gear and worn-out rag joint in the intermediate shaft. It wandered significantly and corrections felt darty. Body lean was noticeable and concerning. The seating position for the driver is quite odd. There's no thigh support at all, which is at least partially because you're forced into a knees-up seating position as the seat is high enough off the floor to prevent you from stretching your legs out but low enough to the floor to prevent you from sitting with your femur perpendicular to your torso. This may have been exacerbated by my 6'-2" height which is slightly biased toward leg length, but for a time I designed chairs and noticed the odd seat height with respect to the vehicle floor. The seat height is almost perfect with respect to the ground outside, being a slight drop down to sit in for me but probably an even slide over for anyone between a 5'-4 woman (my mom, or my 11 year old) and an average height male. Getting out is different, and I don't know how people acclimate themselves. It must be something you learn to deal with, but my size 12s kept getting tripped up on the sill when exiting. The Civic floorpan has a higher door sill height than the floor board similar to most small unibody cars. The seat height feels much more similar to my Odyssey or my pickup, both of which have no such sill. Because of the aforementioned odd seat height relative to the floor and knees-up driving position, this forces your knees WAY up for your foot to clear the sill. My parents never complained, but I figured for as easy as it is for older folks to get in it's doubly hard to get out and that would have at least made some noise. As stated my dad works out of state during the week and puts over 800 miles a week on a vehicle. He's an electrical engineer doing specialty electrical testing and field installation and has expensive tools and equipment he must carry. His last employer provided an Express van and then a boxy Escape for this, but he currently must field his own vehicle. Theoretically the Element should be ideally suited for such a role, carrying tools that are not too heavy nor too large and frequenting soft-road locations (substations etc). Neither of my parents has come out and said, but I believe subconsciously they know, there are myriad good reasons my dad is racking up miles on their 2004 Odyssey EXL (yes, they bought both at the same time) instead of taking the Element for work. The Element is simply too compromised for extended livability, even within its intended niche. Only die-hard fanboys need apply.