Note to BMW: Do you like the way your chairman was allowed to look like a slick managerial BS-er in Automobile's interview? Don't you want to pull your ads from that uppity "buff book" and bring them to Slate, where your products always get a favorable reception? Plus premium positioning!... 3:20 P.M.
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
What Time Does This Space Get to IKEA?
Test Vehicle: Honda Element
Concept: Dude, here's your car! Like the risible Pontiac Aztek, the Element is a boxy van built on an an existing mass-market car chassis, with "cool" styling and available four-wheel drive designed to appeal to the Youthful Buyers of Today! Unlike the Aztek, the Element really is cool looking, in an industrial, vaguely PC, Tonka People's Transport sort of way. ("Is it a hybrid?" was what gawkers often asked. It's not.) Also unlike the Pontiac, the car on which the Honda's based--the Civic--is one you would actually want to buy. At around $20,000 the Element offers lots of reliable cubic feet of carrying capacity per dollar.
Aesthetics: The hose-it-out, "Gen Y Staff Car" look retains its appeal even after you've realized it's largely fake. As with the Chrysler PT Cruiser, most of what you initially think is sturdy metal--e.g., the shiny front bumper bar--turns out to be plastic. But it's high-quality, Honda plastic. (Such high quality that I unpatriotically assumed the Element was made in Japan, not in an American "transplant" factory. In fact, it's built in Ohio.) The Honda's radiator is visible from the front--a nice, elemental effect. The interior (strong shapes of blue and grey on the Gearbox test vehicle) cheers you up without being gimmicky.
Essential contradiction: The car looks like a rugged Panzer for Pavement-lovers. But it drives like a loaded-down Civic.
It should be called: The Honda Elephant. Slow, carries a lot, and will last a long time.
Slice of drive: Like an SUV, the Element is tall. Unlike on an SUV, the load floor is very near the road. Result: a huge, room-like interior space. The vast windshield is way up there in the front--watching the road ahead is like looking at a movie. Acceleration can tactfully be described as gradual. The brakes are excellent, but there's the traditional front-wheel-drive mush up front when you rotate the wheel. (The 4WD version might be better.) ... The Element doesn't make you feel fast, or agile, or tough. It makes you feel efficient. You're not a driver; you're a movement technician! I think this is what the people who drive the D.C. Metro trains must experience: the smoothly increasing momentum accompanied by a steady hum. The square, long, solid container moving gracefully through space. Watch the closing doors! As on the Metro line, the hard seats hurt my back. ... This would be a good vehicle to drive across the country, if you were accompanied by a bunch of entertaining friends and a vast array of salty snacks. The car itself certainly isn't going to be the star.
Great virtue: Volume! Much of it is in front of the driver, and therefore useless, but the impression is of a vast cavity easily accessed through the side "suicide" doors. The rear seat is set way back--as in the forthcoming Chevy Malibu Maxx--which means an almost unusably large, Checker-Cab quantity of legroom. A man could blog from in there! The seats do-si-do into some kind of bed--I didn't try that, but they moved easily out of the way when I did decide to haul my unwieldy 7-foot dining table out from storage. The table just barely fit inside--see photo--but that's more than I could say for almost any other $20,000 enclosed vehicle I could name.
Performance: Corners well for a room! With its high center of gravity, the Element tips but holds on stably. The yawing will scare you into slowing down well before it starts to slide. As the conductor ... I mean, driver, you sit up high--as high as in a typical SUV--which seems to be enough to trigger the Darwinian intimidation gene. Other drivers get out of your way. Soon I was unconsciously flinging around this Biosphere 3 with obnoxious disregard for the rights of others. ... Predictably, the tall, slabby Element gets blown about by side winds. On a gusty freeway it was no fun at all.