Considering the conservative, best-selling Accord, Honda stretched its manufacturing boundaries with the Element. Since its debut in 2003, the vehicle has frequently been described with two succinct comments: “It’s ugly” and “It’s a box with four wheels.”
There’s no disputing the Element has among the most conspicuous appearances on the road. But good looks (or lack of good looks) are subjective. More important, Honda doesn’t make a car without a plan.
The Element was introduced as an urban utilitarian vehicle with hopes it would appeal to younger drivers seeking pickup truck cargo space in an enclosed area. The the vehicle has attracted a young crowd to some degree, but the average age of buyers to date is 43, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
Regardless, Element owners are largely those who’ve sought a vehicle with easy access to cargo areas for sporting equipment groceries, luggage and work supplies.
In the first extended trek in my weekly test drive, I drove the four-wheel drive EX model — one of three available options — on a 175-mile round-trip journey to Berkeley, Calif. It had a 4-cylinder, 16-value, 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
I departed in a light late afternoon rain, drove into windy, clear skies and returned late at night after intermittent showers made the interstate surface slick. Considering the three different weather patterns, the Element adjusted well and offered a comfortable drive. The car felt secure on the road and it has near-panoramic visibility from the slightly elevated driver’s seat position.
My vehicle had a silver metallic exterior and gray/blue interior, both basic colors but complementary considering the vehicle’s intended utility use.
The interior design is straightforward with few gadgets, easy-to-use ventilation, air-conditioning, heat and radio controls, and a nicely angled transmission box and shifter. It’s located on the lower dash, not between the seats on a front console.
The two front doors open wide and have easy entry and exit. The side doors open with an interior side door latch and only in combination with the front door handle. The side doors also open to 90 degrees angles and that affords a massive amount of interior space for loading or unloading the aforementioned needs of the utilitarian-type owners.
Another touted feature in the Element’s multi-use theme is its scratch-resistant, waterproof interior. Although I didn’t test the claim, the vehicle’s cloth seats are designed to get wet as is the rubberlike floor covering. There are tales of some Element owners hosing out their vehicles’ interiors after perhaps transporting muddy mountain bikes or wet hunting dogs.
The vehicle’s riding comfort and steering are satisfactory and its easy maneuverability in tight positions is impressive considering its height and shape. The vehicle isn’t a luxury sedan, with its prominent road noise level one sure measurement.
The EX, all-wheel drive model has also a rear-seat sunroof, air-conditioning, cruise control, alloy wheels, ABS brakes, power windows and CD player. Some of those options are available on other Element models.
None of the automatic or manual transmission Elements have earned particularly good acceleration marks. The EX model, as others have noted, needed a full throttle to maintain its speed on a few medium-grade inclines.
Safety Features — Driver and front passenger front and side airbags, side impact door beams, ABS brakes.
Fuel Mileage (estimates) — 21 mpg (city), 24 mpg (highway).
Warranty — Bumper to bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 3 years/36,000 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles.
Base Price Range — $16,100-$21,100.
Article Last Updated: April 25, 2013.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.