2003 Honda Element Photo
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The intent behind Honda’s various models has traditionally been easy to discern. The Civic is a high-value small car, the CR-V a high-value small SUV, the Accord a high-value family sedan, the S2000 a high-value pure sports car, the Odyssey a high-value minivan… you get the point. Honda’s lineup is transparent: the buying public clearly knows exactly what each vehicle is, for whom it is built and why Honda is building it.

Except for the new, wholly opaque, Element. It’s the only Honda that makes customers ask: “What is it?” “Who’s it for?” and “Why is Honda building this?” It’s the Honda that needs an explanation.

For its part, Honda says that the “Element accommodates a new generation of vehicle buyer who seeks room for bulky items like big sports gear but doesn’t want a pickup truck or a large, expensive SUV.” That’s a start.

What is it?

For the most part, the Element is the second SUV built atop Honda’s excellent Global Small Car (GSC) platform and shares most of its structure, suspension and drivetrain components (including its 160-horsepower, 2.4-liter, i-VTEC four and optional “Real Time” all-wheel drive system) with and is about the same size as other vehicles constructed around the GSC, including the Civic, the Acura RSX and its closest (at least philosophically) platform-mate, the CR-V. In fact, the Ohio-built Element’s 101.4-inch wheelbase is 1.7 inches shorter than the Japan- and Britain-built CR-V’s, and at 166.5 inches it’s just a touch more than a full foot shorter overall than its brother small SUV. But at 71.5 inches wide and 74.0 inches tall, it’s more than an inch wider and a full 5.3 inches taller than the CR-V. And unlike the CR-V, the Element is anything but a conventional, straightforward small SUV.

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

Enlarge Photo
The most prominent detour from convention is the doors. In lieu of four regular side doors as on the CR-V and virtually every other SUV, the Element uses an arrangement similar to full-size extended cab pickups. The front set of doors opens normally, while the aft- ward doors are rear-hinged and open suicide-style only after the forwards. What the Element gains from this arrangement is the elimination of the B-pillar and that means when all the doors are swung open, that there’s one huge hole available through which practically anything short of Spruance-class destroyer can sail. There’s a lot of structure in those rear doors to ensure safety so the windows in them only tilt open for ventilation rather than roll down, but for owners who use the rear seat area more often as a flotsam receptacle than a place to put actual humans there’s some logic to the Element’s doors.

Also unique is the Element’s exterior appearance, which is styled in the currently chic (in Japan at least) bolt upright two-box idiom. While the shape itself is awkward from every angle, there are some neat details worth appreciating. Like the graceful arch in the ribbed roof, the two-tiered taillamps, and the texture of the composite plastic fenders and roof rails. Pretty? Uh, no. Interesting? Hmmm, yeah okay, it’s interesting.

Flexible choice

It’s the interior, most importantly its utility, that either makes or breaks the Element. There’s a complete lack of carpeting, but loads of places to stow stuff, some real innovation in the form of sound systems and the seating is flexible and comfortable.

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

Enlarge Photo
In place of the carpeting is, ahem, “Thermoplastic Olefin (TPO) Topcoat” which is almost tacky to the touch and looks tough enough so that even spills of plutonium-enriched Jell-O wipe up with a damp cloth. It’s not quite the stark flooring one finds in a base pickup (it’s too cozily padded for that), but it’s close and it’s used in both the base DX and more comprehensively equipped EX trim levels. It’s an easy to care for material, but the location of so many electronics aboard makes hosing out the interior impractical. Though you might be able to do it – once.

Some of those low-mounted electronics are part of the EX’s sound system (DXes come pre-wired, but otherwise audio-free), which includes a CD player, a thumping 6.5-inch subwoofer beneath the instrument panel and a 270-watt amp. The innovation comes in the form of an auxiliary input jack that allows things like an Apple iPod or other MP3 player to seamlessly pump its tunes through the Element’s seven speakers. This is such an obvious and useful addition to any automotive sound system that we expect foreheads are being slapped at other automakers right now as they realize how stupidly they’ve overlooked this obvious tweak.

Rated to carry a mere four humans, the seats fold, spin, twist and stow into 64 different configurations according to Honda. What they seem proudest of is that when the rear and front seats are both folded flat (or flattish) the result is twin sleeping surfaces. Not quite beds, the unfurled seats make up for their lack of perfect levelness with excellent contouring that makes them surprisingly decent napping receptacles. The rear seats also remove or fold up to the sides out of the way of cargo and in the way of peripheral vision. Unfortunately the front seat tracks don’t go back far enough to accommodate drivers and passengers with inseams beyond 33-inches; the tall driver finds the steering wheel uncomfortably close and the tall passenger finds his knees wedged into the glove box door. The driver may also find the three deeply tunneled, nicely detailed instruments disappearing under some lighting conditions. However the CR-V derived ventilation controls are perfect and  every other control is easy to find and easy to operate.

A removable pop-up sunroof is standard on all-wheel drive model Elements, but it’s mounted at the rear of the vehicle. That’s good for those times when owners are picnicking off the split rear tailgate and want some additional sunshine, or if megalomania should suddenly strike and the owner wants to stand up through it as a Generalissimo-spec parade car.

Who’s it for?

Honda thinks the Element is the perfect adventure machine for young males with extreme sports lifestyles that tend to wear hip sunglasses and give the thumbs-up to each other as the drive from one radical event to another. Aren’t those the same people who don’t have jobs and spend all their money on snowboards, skateboards, surfboards and plywood floorboards for their rusted-out pickups?

Somehow it seems the Element is more attuned to a lifestyle that includes more trips to Pottery Barn than the Banzai Pipeline. The 2.4-liter, i-VTEC four is basically the same engine that’s standard in the Accord and it’s capable of moving the 3352-pound, two-wheel-drive, five-speed manual Element DX with some grace, but a four-wheel drive EX with the four-speed automatic comes in at 3595 pounds. That’s a lot for 160 ponies to push around through a torque converter and all-wheel drive system. There’s really nothing rad about the Element’s power production.

And the chassis could contend with much more power. With MacPherson struts up front and double-wishbones in the back, and generous P215/70R16 all-season tires as standard (even if they’re on steel wheels on the DX) the road manners are more RSX than SUV. The steering is excellent, the four-wheel ABS disc brakes effective, the ride motions poised, and the cornering limits relatively high. On the road, this is probably the best-handling SUV-like vehicle on the market with a sticker price below $35,000 – better even than Honda’s own Pilot. Its off-road ability is limited, but its on-road behavior more than makes up for it.

The young males Honda is aiming this vehicle at will probably stick with their junkers. After all, who cares if a surfboard fits inside an Element when it looks so cool strapped to the rotting vinyl roof of an ’81 Coupe DeVille? But for kid-less adults who don’t need easy access to the rear seat and crave the easy ability to shove in and stow all the impulse-buy antiques they accumulate during a weekend drive up the California coast, the Element is nearly perfect.

Honda has been roundly criticized for its conservative styling in recent years and, more than anything else, one gets the feeling that the Element exists so that Honda can prove to itself that it’s capable of taking chances and being stylish. One hardly wants to say anything that doesn’t encourage the company in this search for its soul.

But the Element isn’t the home run we’ve come to expect every time Honda steps to the plate. Of course the Element is well-built, of course it has a sweet engine and velveteen chassis, and with prices starting at $16,000 and topping out at around $21,000, of course it’s keenly priced. But are there really 50,000 people out there this year who’ll want something so hard to explain?

2003 Honda Element EX
Base price: $20,500 (est.)
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 160 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 166.5 x 71.5 x 74.0 in
Wheelbase: 101.4 in
Curb weight: 3544 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/23 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, optional side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, CD player, keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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