2008 Honda Element Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
June 27, 2008

The 2008 Honda Element is a great choice for drivers who need lots of storage room and a spill-proof interior.

The car experts at TheCarConnection.com studied a wide range of road tests (and off-road tests) of the 2008 Honda Element to compile this conclusive review. TheCarConnection.com's resident car experts also drove and have owned the Honda Element, and they've added their driving impressions and more vehicle details to help you decide if the Honda Element is the right car for you.

The 2008 Honda Element is a singular vehicle; part crossover, part sport-utility, part economy car, and part mini-minivan, its big virtues include big interior space, a flexible rear seat and cargo bay, and a funky appeal that's modern and fresh.

The 2008 Honda Element is offered in three trim levels. All share an uprated 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine with 166 horsepower and a new five-speed automatic transmission. Together they grant the Element with good, though not great, fuel economy of up to 20/25 mpg. The four-cylinder engine is a little buzzy at the top of its range, and the Element is no scorching performer, but it's fine for city use and for highway cruising.

As before, the Element is offered in either standard front- or optional all-wheel drive. Handling and ride are fairly good for a tall vehicle. The steering wheel sits a little low, but the adjustable seats let the driver choose a good driving height with great outward visibility. Steering is a little slow but feels fine, and braking is good. All-wheel drive is an option.

Review continues below

The difference that makes the 2008 Honda Element a great choice comes down to its body and interior. The Element has four doors, but two of them open on rear hinges away from the front pair of doors. They can't be opened unless the front doors are open--but when they are, the access to the rear of the vehicle is exceptional. The rear seats also lay flat and can be folded up against the interior of the cargo area to create a large expanse with a flat floor that's lined in plastic on base versions for easy cleanup.

The Element's unique shape was updated last year, and its original appeal has dulled somewhat as a result. Plastic fenders -- meant to resist scuffs -- are now painted. Honda also added touches meant to give the Element a younger look. In fact, they added a model, the sport-minded Element SC, to cater to the tuner crowd. The SC has a sport suspension tuning and lowered ride height, 18-inch alloy wheels, special grille, projector beam headlights, and monochromatic color scheme with painted bumpers and trim--and a carpeted floor.

All versions have standard keyless entry, power accessories, and an iPod jack. Options include XM Satellite Radio, but there is no navigation system offered, nor is there Bluetooth capability.

In 2007, the Element added brake assist, as well as standard stability control and side curtain airbags. It's a Top Safety Pick with "good" ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but drops to "poor" without those side airbags.

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2008 Honda Element

Styling

The 2008 Honda Element still sports unique styling inside and out—and while it’s not universally loved, it is functional.

While the 2008 Honda Element has undergone very few changes since its introduction in 2003, its styling still inspires controversy with auto writers across the Web.

Car and Driver thinks the Element has “the exterior lines of the rough and tough Hummer, flavored with hints of the two-tone Mini.” The styling is “undeniably more adventurous” than typical SUVs, Cars.com says, particularly since “part of the lower body consists of composite cladding panels, which form a curious contrast to the painted steel portions.” That’s still true of LX versions: Kelley Blue Book writes that the Honda Element is "easily recognizable at any distance," and while the LX’s "unpainted plastic body panels" may not have the greatest visual appeal, they "cleverly and conveniently avoid the issue of scratching the surface during such activities as loading bikes or skis onto the roof rack." However, in 2007 Honda updated the styling of the Element, painting those panels on the EX versions, giving it "body-color fenders and door handles," according to Edmunds.

Moving up to the front-wheel-drive-only Honda Element SC brings a slightly different look, as it "sheds a bit of the original's overtly utilitarian duds for a new front fascia with projector beam headlamps, a lowered ride height," and "larger 18-inch wheels and bumpers actually painted to match the rest of the vehicle," according to Autoblog. Cars.com thinks that "it looks like a tuner shop had its way with things" on the Element SC, which is exactly the reaction that Honda hoped to receive. Cars.com reviewers characterize the headlights as "menacing," a term rarely used to describe anything on a Honda, and they also mention the "monochromatic ground effects" as an appealing sporty touch.

While the look of the Honda Element's exterior may not be for everyone, the form and the function of the interior create a harmonious blend of comfort and practicality. As Kelley Blue Book puts it, "the Element's interior is unlike anything else on the road"--and according to most reviews read by TheCarConnection.com, that seems to be the point. Kelley Blue Book reports that "the Element's original concept, in fact, was touted as a 'rolling dorm room.'" Be that as it may, The Auto Channel says that, in the Element, Honda has provided a "spacious, accessible, and easy-to-clean interior," with the SC trim distinguished from the base trims with "special fabric on the seats, copper-colored bezels around the instruments and shifter with some exterior colors, copper-backlit instruments, and 'piano black' interior trim." Cars.com, though, finds "little to like in cabin quality and ergonomics" of the 2008 Honda Element, complaining that although the 2007 update "gave it new gauges and center controls," the dash still "has an industrial severity to it," with "upright facings and hard, dimpled plastics [that] feel too cold and trucklike." ConsumerGuide is a little more positive, finding that on the Element, Honda has crafted "simple, convenient climate and audio controls"; however, they add that the "hooded gauges are hard to see in some light conditions, and are partly obscured for tall drivers by steering wheel."

TheCarConnection.com’s team of SUV reviewers likes the original appeal of the Element. It’s a singular vehicle; part crossover, part sport-utility, part economy car, and part mini-minivan, its big virtues include big interior space, a flexible rear seat and cargo bay, and a funky appeal that's modern and fresh. The Element's unique shape has been dulled somewhat as a result of the tweaks meant to appeal to younger buyers, but the look is still like something you’d find on a shelf at Target. Inside, the hard plastics are at least washable, and the Element’s simple, straightforward layout of controls and upright shape gives it acres of functionality.

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2008 Honda Element

Performance

The 2008 Honda Element’s performance is matched evenly with its city-minivan mission.

While the 2008 Honda Element certainly isn't a sporty vehicle, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com seemed content with the overall performance of Honda's small SUV. Although it did not excel in any particular field, there were very few, if any, complaints about overall performance on the Honda Element.

For the 2008, Edmunds writes that "all Honda Elements use a 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 166 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque." When it comes to driving impressions, reviewers at Edmunds find that the four-cylinder engine on "the 2008 Honda Element is no speed demon, but it does offer peppy performance, with enough smoothness to make everyday commuting a pleasant experience." Cars.com adds that "even with a full load of passengers," there is "sufficient oomph starting from dead stops." ConsumerGuide reviewers managed to achieve a respectable "8.8 sec 0-60 mph" time in a "manual transmission 2WD LX."

The singular engine option on the 2008 Honda Element delivers power to the road through either a "five speed-manual transmission," which is the standard equipment, or an optional "five-speed automatic," according to Edmunds. Both transmission options on the Honda Element receive generous reviews, and Cars.com writes that the automatic "pairs nicely with the four-cylinder," and it "holds gears a few moments long, allowing drivers to wring out a bit more power than they could with an early-shifting transmission." Those same reviewers at Cars.com also appreciate that, during highway driving, the "transmission kicks down with minimal delay, delivering acceptable, if noisy, passing performance." In terms of the standard manual transmission on the Element, Honda offers a "smooth, low-effort shift/clutch action" on its manual models, according to ConsumerGuide. All 2008 Honda Elements come standard with front-wheel drive, but ForbesAutos notes that "the front-wheel drive Element can be equipped with AWD for $1,400" on the LX and EX models; the Honda Element SC is available only in front-wheel drive.

Fuel efficiency tends toward average on the 2008 Honda Element. Cars.com characterizes the Element's mileage as "on the low end, but not drastically so, for this segment." The EPA estimates that front-wheel-drive Honda Elements with a manual transmission will return 18 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, with the automatic offering 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. For consumers opting for all-wheel drive, the numbers move to 18/23 mpg on the manual and 19/24 mpg for the automatic.

True to the overall theme of the Element, Honda has crafted a suspension that is ideal for all-around use. Kelley Blue Book reviewers "found it easy to dart in and out of traffic and take sweeping curves and sharp turns with confidence." Edmunds also appreciates the driving performance offered by the Honda Element, writing that "the steering offers positive feedback, and the wide track keeps the Element stable in evasive maneuvers." Reviewers at Edmunds add that "while the Element rides nicely enough, it has a stiffer suspension than most compact SUVs, especially on the SC version." Reining in the fun are the Element's adequate brakes, which ConsumerGuide says are "okay" for "routine braking," though "not all testers like Element's pedal feel."

The Honda Element's suspension, steering, and braking systems are all individually acceptable, but they can add up to an uncomfortable ride. ConsumerGuide writes that rear occupants "endure marked chop and thump over bumps," and while "front-seaters are more comfortable," the ride "still can be stiff and jiggly on patchy pavement and washboard surfaces."

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2008 Honda Element

Comfort & Quality

The 2008 Honda Element is—as its name states—elemental, which means interior materials are more practical than plush. Interior room, though, is excellent.

One look at the 2008 Honda Element reveals that conformity is certainly not what the designers at Honda had in mind, and traces of the Element's unconventional nature can be found inside the car as well.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the 2008 Honda Element is its seating capacity; Edmunds finds it very unusual that, "unlike most compact SUVs, the Honda Element only accommodates four." Despite the decided lack of capacity, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com indicate that the four occupants will ride with plenty of room, though seat comfort could use some work. ConsumerGuide notes that the front seats of the Honda Element feature "ample adult-size room, but hard padding is not conducive to long-haul comfort." Reviewers at Cars.com write that while the rear seats "have flimsy, low cushions and little thigh support," overall "the legroom is impressive." Cars.com reviewers "much prefer it over the tiny backseat in Toyota's FJ Cruiser." Reviews are split when it comes to passenger room in the rear of the 2008 Honda Element, with Edmunds claiming that rear passengers have "plenty of room and high visibility," but ConsumerGuide counters by charging that "headroom and legroom are only adequate."

While reviewers disagree somewhat when it comes to passenger space, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com showed virtually no complaints about cargo room on the 2008 Honda Element. One of the biggest practicality measures of an SUV is cargo space, and with the Element, Honda has scored a huge hit in this category. Cars.com writes that "the seats can be configured in seemingly endless ways," including folded against the side windows, in order to accommodate different volumes of cargo, and "maximum cargo volume is 77.1 cubic feet," a number that puts the Honda Element ahead of nearly all its competitors. ConsumerGuide points out one interesting note about the design of the Honda Element: "with the seats suitably arranged, Element can tote a 10-ft surfboard or sleep two adults who are less than 5-feet-9-inches tall." Edmunds simply says that "cargo room is exceptional," and "the fact that its side doors open wide eases loading, though their clamshell design can be a hassle." Aside from rear cargo room, there is also ample storage space in the passenger cabin. ConsumerGuide finds "many cubbies inside the cabin, but none are covered or lined, meaning small items are exposed and can shift easily."

Although many aspects of the Honda Element are praiseworthy, one point of contention is the materials quality on the interior. ConsumerGuide writes that "assembly quality is Honda-typical," which has become synonymous with exceptional, "but Element's cabin is decked out with lots of hard plastic with unappealing texture." Cars.com reviewers agree, finding "little to like in cabin quality." One glance around the interior is enough to realize that, on the Element, Honda certainly wasn't trying to win any materials contests.

One important piece of the occupant comfort puzzle is interior noise levels, and on this count, the 2008 Honda Element receives lukewarm reviews. ConsumerGuide finds that "tire noise is evident on coarse pavement, and Element's boxy design is subject to intrusive wind rush at speeds above 60 mph." Edmunds confirms their opinion, writing that "the only thing detracting from the fun is the wind noise generated by the Element's boxy, tall body."

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2008 Honda Element

Safety

The 2008 Honda Element has great safety features and crash-test scores.

The Honda Element has scored well in both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests since it was first introduced in 2003.

In its latest version, the 2008 Honda Element earns very high praise from both agencies. The NHTSA has awarded the 2008 Honda Element its highest rating, a full five stars, for both front and side impacts. The IIHS also bestows its highest rating, "good," upon the Honda Element, in both frontal offset and side impact tests.

When it comes to safety equipment, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com strongly approve of the standard features on the Honda Element. Edmunds writes that "you'll find antilock disc brakes with brake assist, traction control and stability control on every 2008 Honda Element," along with standard "front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags." Those standard airbags represent a critical new addition to the Element; Honda's previous versions scored poorly in side-impact crash tests if they weren't fitted with what were then optional side curtain airbags. In addition to these standard airbags and driving assistance features, Cars.com writes that the 2008 Honda Element also has "LATCH child-seat anchors embedded in both rear seats," which allow for quick and easy installation of child seats.

In addition to the multitude of interior safety features such as curtain airbags on the Element, Honda includes an electronic stability program on all 2008 Elements. An electronic stability program (often referred to as ESP) monitors the power being delivered to each wheel and cuts powers when one wheel starts to spin or lose its grip, which greatly reduced the chance of skidding out or rolling over.

One drawback to the wealth of safety features and exceptional crash-test ratings on the Honda Element is the decidedly average driver visibility. ConsumerGuide finds that while "the SUV-tall driving stance and short nose offer a panoramic feel," the "roof pillars slice into visibility aft and over the shoulders." ForbesAutos agrees, writing that "it takes many miles behind the wheel to become accustomed to the sight picture."

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2008 Honda Element

Features

The 2008 Honda Element boasts lots of functional features, but the latest tech options aren’t offered—and some features aren’t available at all on the base model.

The 2008 Honda Element is loaded with features you simply cannot find on most other cars in its class.

The 2008 Honda Element was designed with outdoorsy types in mind, and accordingly has built-in room for kayak and surfboard racks. Standard on both the LX and EX versions of the Honda Element are water-resistant floors and, on the EX, waterproof seats. Edmunds finds that the "urethane flooring allows easy clean-up with soap and water after a day at the beach." Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com loved the added practicality of these features. On the SC version of the Element, Honda also includes the waterproof seats, but Kelley Blue Book notes that it "features carpeting in the passenger cabin."

Edmunds writes that every 2008 Honda Element comes with "air-conditioning, full power accessories, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, 100-watt CD stereo and keyless entry." The EX model of the Honda Element adds MP3 capability, a 270-watt sound system, and satellite radio and stereo controls located on the steering wheel, as well as the option for all-wheel drive. Changes to the SC model remain purely cosmetic: lowered suspension, premium alloy wheels, and color-coded interior trim.

For both the LX and EX versions of the Honda Element, all-wheel drive is an available option. Aside from the extra pair of drive wheels, ConsumerGuide finds that opting for all-wheel drive automatically includes a "tilt/removable glass 'skylight' over the cargo bay." If optional features and personalization are your thing, however, you might want to stay away from the Element; Honda offers absolutely zero optional features aside from the three different trim levels and the all-wheel-drive model's included skylight. Features like Bluetooth and a navigation system are not offered.

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7.8
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Expert Rating
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Styling 7.0
Performance 7.0
Comfort & Quality 8.0
Safety 9.0
Features 8.0
Fuel Economy N/A
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