By on May 16, 2018

2007 Honda Element EX, Image: American Honda

A few weeks ago, I took the checkered flag at Mid-Ohio as the winner of the Honda Challenge class and was promptly directed to the scales for a post-race weigh-in. The tech crew pushed my Accord up onto the scales and the young lady at the computer shot me an inquiring look.

“Okay… looks like you’re at 3,176. What’s your listed race weight?”

“Three thousand even,” I replied, since that’s the minimum weight for V6 cars in Honda Challenge. She poked a few buttons on her laptop.

“Are you usually… this much overweight?”

“You,” I replied, “sound like every woman I ever met on an OKCupid date.”

The fact of the matter is that it’s almost impossible to cut a 2014 Accord Coupe down to 2,700 pounds without fuel, particularly after you put in a rollcage, and that’s what I would need to cross the scales at three K flat. If I could manage it, however, I’d likely stretch my margin of victory even further. You wouldn’t know it to look at 2018’s “performance car” market, but weight is the senior partner in what we call the power-to-weight ratio. It’s why Robert Kubica willingly cut muscle to lose 13 pounds for the 2008 F1 season; there was no more fat for him to lose, but the stopwatch doesn’t care if you’re pulling fat, muscle, fuel, or depleted uranium.

Losing weight isn’t always a struggle of Kubica-esque proportions. I lost a full three pounds off my combined bike-and-rider weight recently by switching to a titanium frame with carbon fork. I could have made the same gains by ordering a smaller filet on weekend nights but there’s no joy in that. Porsche took a few ounces off the 911 GT3RS by putting stickers on the car in place of little plastic logos. They even got to charge more for it. And then there’s the remarkably pain-free choice faced by this week’s “Ask Jack” contender.

Ross writes,

I’ve been rocking steel wheels on my Honda Element for the last 10 years. I just noticed that I can get good used Honda aluminum rims for $150/set. Not sure it’s worth the hassle to upgrade just for the looks. Apparently the aluminum rims are about 3.5 lbs lighter per wheel. So that would take total wheel weight (w/ tire) from 49.5 ish to 46 ish lbs. Would I notice a difference in daily driving?

In the cycling world, we say that one rotating pound is worth about three static pounds. It’s not hard to understand why. Static weight, such as a seat or a radiator shell or a windshield, has to be accelerated. Rotating weight, such as a wheel or a crankshaft, has to be rotated up to speed in addition to being accelerated. There’s a little bit of math involved if you want to get really jiggy with it. When two wheels are the same weight, the larger one will require more energy to spin. If you have the choice of saving weight on the wheel or the tire, choose the lighter tire. Hollow crankshafts sap more power than solid crankshafts made from a less dense material. That kind of thing.

For Ross, however, the math is pretty plain. Switching to aluminum wheels would save him the equivalent of 45 static pounds. That’s not a lot compared to the 3,500-pound average curb weight of an Element. But it ain’t nothing either, if you catch my double negative drift. As you would expect, the Canadian government has gone through the trouble of coming up with some figures for the correlation between weight savings and fuel cost. They believe that Ross would save about $164 (CDN) over the course of 120,000 miles. That’s about the price of the wheels, which makes this a wash as long as you were going to have new tires mounted anyway.

Luckily for Ross, there are a few other benefits to saving weight on wheels. Ride and handling are affected by wheel weight to a surprising degree because wheel weight is “unsprung”. Which is another way of saying that it doesn’t benefit from your suspension, since it’s on the wrong side of the suspension. Lighter wheels tend to skip over obstacles compared to their heavier counterparts. They exert less strain on bearings and bushings.

Lighter wheels are also easier to turn; your steering will feel less numb if you switch to aluminum wheels. Last but not least, aluminum wheels tend to have better venting for brakes, meaning that your pads and fluid will last longer. There’s virtually no drawback to them, other than a potential reduction in durability. With some aftermarket wheels, that’s an issue — I’ve bent the “Sparco” wheels made by O.Z. Racing’s Chinese partners more than once. These being OEM Honda wheels, however, I wouldn’t worry about it.

In short, I don’t see any reason for Ross not to upgrade his Element. It’s an easy weight savings at low cost. There’s also the possibility that having alloy wheels will make it easier for him to sell when the time comes. Not that he’ll have any trouble. Despite their barn-door aerodynamics and ‘Vette*-like quarter-mile performance, the Honda Element is very popular with the cycling and outdoorsy crowds. You might even say this particular Element is in the process of being transmuted by the used-car market into… if not gold, then at least silver!

* That’s “Vette” as in Chevette.

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37 Comments on “Ask Jack: The Lightest Element?...”

  • avatar
    Kalvin Knox

    I’ve always had a fondness for the Element for some reason. Never owned one, never driven or even been in one, but these things just intrigue me.

    • 0 avatar

      If Honda won’t do it, Toyota needs to step up and actually make their TJ Cruiser concept a reality. A slightly taller roof, AWD, sliding rear glass window, and not too greedy with pricing… yes!

      There’s been nothing on the market since Mazda’s MVP and, later, this Element.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      A good friend of mine has a 2003 Element, and he and I park our cars (my 2003 S2000) next to each other and congratulate ourselves on our nice classic Hondas.

    • 0 avatar

      My friend’s family has a rebuilt title early year Element as a around-town beater car, I’ve only ridden in it once but I can see the appeal as far as interior room and layout goes.

  • avatar

    There is no real downside to swapping out the wheels. The only one I can think of is the fact that aluminum wheels tend to pit over time if used in the winter.

  • avatar

    In the snow/salt/rust belt alloy wheels over ten years old can be a liability. They corrode at the tire bead area and cause slow leaks. The fix is to dismount the tire, clean the rim with a wire brush, and reassemble using a sealing agent. Steel wheels do not have nearly as big a problem.

  • avatar

    I say go for it too but doubt you’ll notice the increase in any performance metric in your average day to day use. You are smart to go with used OE wheels, fact is most OE wheels are far superior in their strength weight and corrosion resistance compared to most aftermarket wheels.

    • 0 avatar

      I have always had good luck sourcing newer OEM wheels for my older cars. Most of the time, it looks great. The 2017 17″ Focus SEL alloys (with new tires from TireRack) look great on the car, and it drives great with them.

      The previous wheels were from a 2004ish Taurus. They were 16″ with much thicker sidewall, so they took up about the same amount of space as the 17s with low profile tires on them. I have not noticed a worse ride quality. (Other than with new bearings/hubs up front, all vibration is gone and the car is smooth as silk on new pavement, etc.)

      I wanted Fusion wheels of a different style than I got, but I like these well enough and they go just fine with the car. They were also very cheap, as in $100 for the set of (no tires) wheels off a car barely a year old. One wheel still had an OEM tire with excellent tread, but a gash in the sidewall. No damage to the wheels whatsoever, he just “upgraded” to black aftermarket for the Focus (it was there when I went to buy them). The guy installing the new tires said “they balance well, just like a new car’s”. I thought: yeah, they nearly are new.

      I’ve ridden in cars with brand new aftermarket wheels (and tires) that vibrate because they can’t get it balanced right, on a year old Tahoe I’m thinking, really? Brand new wheels and they can’t be made to ride right? I never thought about going with just any aftermarket brand from then on, and decided to go with OEM when I could.

  • avatar

    How much fuel would be saved if we went back to 90s-era wheel/tire sizes?

    • 0 avatar

      The Element does have 90’s era tire sizes with its 215/70 though they are 16″. So no real gain there as I doubt a much skinnier tire is out there with the required load ratings and you’d have to change the final drive ratio to not lose mpg due to something like a 215/70-15 a size right out of the 80’s

    • 0 avatar

      They would drive horribly, and they’d take a really long time to stop. In short, they would be unsafe to drive, so fuel savings would likely be astronomical.

      Cars are heavier now, and for good reason (crash protection and other safety items), yet most cars drive pretty decently and get decent fuel mileage. They don’t wallow and get out of hand like big heavy vehicles used to. Heavier, larger cars need* bigger brakes. This has necessitated larger wheels to fit around them as well. Suspension design has greatly improved road feel across the board, and most cars are perfectly comfortable to ride in as well, suggesting there is no drawback to lower profile tires, larger wheels, and the suspension/brakes that go with them.

      If you want a stripped down vehicle with tall sidewalls, little-to-no infotainment or other modern options, terrible driving dynamics with very old-school technology in terms of body structure, your best bet is a Chevy Express cargo van.

      *And before someone tells me about the pizza-cutter rotors he has on 1976 Vista Cruiser being entirely adequate, I’ll go ahead and invite him to “race” a 2019 Chevy Traverse with it. Not 0-60, try 60-0 instead. Point proven. Oh yeah, maybe some actual racing through a twisty mountain course. I betcha the Traverse wins that one, too.

      • 0 avatar

        If HD trucks and modern police vehicles can have adequate brakes with 18 inch wheels I don’t see how a midsize car or CUV would be unsafe to drive with 16 inch wheels.

        Very few vehicles upgrade brakes when you option larger than base wheels anyway. A Carmy XSE V6 on 19s has the same 12in front/ 11in rear brake setup as the Camry L on 16s.

        • 0 avatar

          16 inch wheels were not popular in the 1990s, except maybe on larger vans and pickups. They gained in popularity in the 2000s, such as the Taurus getting them standard across the board in 2000. Why? Brakes got larger. Why? Car got larger and heavier with the redesign. As did all of its competitors.

          14″ (Civic, Camry, Escort, base Accord, base Taurus until 1994, etc) and 15″ (94-99 Taurus, Explorer, Crown Vic, later Lumina, Intrepid, Avalon, etc) were the most common sizes outside of larger trucks.

          That’s what you said, tire sizes from the 90s. Comparing HD truck brakes to a passenger car’s is erroneous, IMO.

          And a Toyota sport trim that’s all bread and no meat? That’s pretty typical of them. Its also likely the 19″ are for style and handling, so you can signal to everyone you’re in the Sporty Camry. (Except it mostly just looks sporty,)

          • 0 avatar

            Forgot about 13″, lol, would’ve been standard on base version of those compacts, as well as most any car smaller.

          • 0 avatar

            “That’s what you said, tire sizes from the 90s.”

            Most of my 90s cars had 16s (they were admittedly higher-end things from that era), but I’ll revise my comment to be more specific.
            “How much fuel would be saved if we went back to sub 20-in wheel/tire sizes?”

        • 0 avatar

          Look, man, I’m not saying every car out there requires wheels as large as they may be, I’m just showing the reasons for the general shift towards larger wheels over the past few decades.

          Options of oversized wheels are just there to cater to the demand. Why refuse to offer 22″ wheels on your luxury SUV when the market is there, and if they don’t buy it from you (the manufacturer), they’ll buy it aftermarket and put it on a vehicle that was never designed or tested for the size, unless of course its an OEM wheel size option, in which case it would’ve been.

  • avatar

    Ah, a man after my own heart. Always better to opt for the Ti frame and carbon bits than skip a nice porter after the ride. I should know, I own two of them. I also play a mean guitar (though I don’t collect Japanese ones) and have played professionally, race cars, and grew up riding BMX in insane ways.

    This dude is like my doppelganger or something. Kinda freaks me out.

    • 0 avatar
      Add Lightness

      In addition to a bit less weight than aluminium, Ti bikes have very nice soft springy ride and are nearly indestructible, unlike carbon.
      I love the way featherweight wheels accelerate but they can be worrisome as a daily ride on crappy roads.

    • 0 avatar
      Compaq Deskpro

      Make sure you get your butt over to his website.

  • avatar

    I reommend this dude replace his Element with a new Corolla hatchback. They look better. And with manual much more involving than a semi SUV that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it was new. The hatchback Corolla is exciting, involving and looks good. Plus its a Toyota

    • 0 avatar

      But will the Honda aluminum wheels fit it?

      Ok, that’s just my way of saying the Corolla hatchback is *not* a replacement for the Element. Not even close. You can hose down the inside of the Element after a day of activity because the floor has a polyurethane coating The rear seats can recline, fold up, or be removed. Doors open wide. I think it was built for people who cycle, surf, and have pets.

      • 0 avatar


        You CANNOT “hose down the inside of an Element”. There are no drains and relatively high sills. You’d have a gigantic puddle the footwells that you’d have a bitch of a time getting out, and you’d have water inside the rear floor heater vents, and in some other places you wouldn’t want it. If you had the subwoofer between the front seats below the shifter, you’d ruin that, too.

        It can be wiped down fairly easily with a cloth and swept out with a small brush and a dust-pan, but NO, you should NOT hose it down.

        • 0 avatar

          The jist of what he was saying rings true, though. This guy didn’t ask what to replace this vehicle with, and unless he asked for a different class of vehicle and not a modern facsimile of the Element, suggesting a Corolla hatchback instead is like telling a rancher that he should trade in his pick up for a Transit Connect because the driving dynamics are bound to be better and (with feeling, now) its versatile too! Just in a completely different way, but that’s not important.

        • 0 avatar

          Nothing a good drill or .30-06 wouldn’t rectify.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re kidding, right? Something unique and different that he obviously likes in exchange for something with all the personality of a type writer?

      Yes I’m sure it can corner better than a utilitarian vehicle like the Element. Not once (that we saw) did he ask about a better driving experience, so clearly that either isn’t a priority (likely) or he finds the Element satisfactory in this area (less likely).

      If Toyota built that quasi-Element-looking CUV they showed (not a liftback car, in otherwords), that would be a logical thing to suggest, but, not every person in a car you don’t personally like despise it as much as you do. If a Corolla sets your heart aglow, then that’s fine. But he didn’t ask Jack if he should dump his current vehicle and what to buy next, did he?

    • 0 avatar

      That’s quite a stretch from “Should I spend a couple of hundred bucks getting some aluminum wheels for my Element?” to “I reommend (sic) this dude replace his Element with a new Corolla hatchback.” About a $20,000+ stretch.

      This comment makes about as much sense to me as “My ashtray is full. Must be time time to buy a new car!”

      • 0 avatar

        The only way the Corolla recommendation could be more classic TTAC is if a Chevy Colorado was recommended instead.

        At least the Corolla is more or less the same vehicle class!

  • avatar

    Having logged many miles in an Element and ‘vette, I can say the Element would blow the doors off the littlest Chevy. Not that they’re quick, but if you let that motor rev there’s horses to be found. A stick helps.

  • avatar

    I recently replaced the aluminum alloy wheels on my Jeep Grand Cherokee with new steel pull-offs I didn’t like the scratches and nicks in them from going off road. I can paint the steel ones. I realize that most Grand Cherokees never go off road, but mine does. I don’t know if the steel ones are stronger, I’ve heard yes and no.

  • avatar

    Elements are neat and have a rabidly devoted cult following that has pushed the values of half-decent ones into the stratosphere. Although I’ll never have one, I think Honda missed an opportunity by not introducing another generation.

  • avatar

    Why don’t they make a minivan with an Element style EZ clean interior?

    5,800 miles of two boys and two Labs, and it took me nearly two hours to get the inside looking not horrible in the Sienna. Minivans should not have carpet!

    • 0 avatar

      A base 1985 Dodge Caravan fits your description.

    • 0 avatar

      You could buy rubber matting and put down, after removing the carpet.

      I always removed the rear carpet of my Aerostars shortly after buying them and then shampooing the carpet out on the driveway.

      Also, the Weathertec rubber mats my cousin uses in his truck are awesome. I take them out and clean them with Purple Power degreaser and they look like new. As does the carpet. They’re expensive, especially for a minivan I bet, but they clean easy and protect well.

  • avatar

    The equivalent inertial mass of wheels is less than two. The factor is two for a thin ring, and 1.5 for a solid disk. So it has to fall somewhere between that range. Maybe 25 pounds of inertial mass lost in this example.

    You do feel that mass a lot more on a bicycle/motorcycle because there is additional effort involved in changing the plane of the rotational mass whenever you lean it.

    • 0 avatar

      And for motorcycles, the extra rotational mass *inside* the engine.

      Unless you happen to have the new Ducati Panigale V4S, in which case the counter-rotating crankshaft cancels some of this unwanted stability.

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