Plus: Honda's Element doesn't drive as cool as it looks. But it's close!
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.
Essential irony: I'd love to see the corporate charts comparing the Element's demographic target with a profile of the car's actual buyers. I bet Honda missed its target by a mile. The idea was supposedly to appeal to 20-year-olds, yet everybody I've seen driving this Bradley Shopping Vehicle (and there are already two on my block) has been a satisfied-looking, flea-market-ready middle-aged boomer. Not that there's anything wrong with it! ... Still, I'm somewhat mystified by all the youth-targeted cars now coming on market. (Click here for Toyota's equally cubic Scion xB.) Who decided that Gen-Y-ers wanted to bop around in boxes? Don't they like to drive like everyone else their age in the past? Don't they have the same genes as their parents? Do they not like sex either? (Well, OK. They get those rear seats. Still.)
What the Element needs: More guts. Raise the price $5,000 and use the money to stick in a bigger engine and bigger tires. There's plenty of empty space left under that windshield for a V-6. If my theory is right, and it's boomers who are buying the Element, they can afford the extra few grand. Rear-wheel drive would be better still. Barring that, a bit more noise--rumbling, mechanical, military-industrial noise!--would help, even if it didn't mean the thing went a whit faster. Right now, the Element is too polite; it needs to drive as rugged as it looks. In comparison, the PT Cruiser is hideous, and not much faster, but it drives (and sounds) the way a car that looks like it looks should drive.
Patented Gearbox Parking Lot Test: (On a scale of 1-10, how happy was I to step out into the parking lot and realize the keys in my hand were for this car?) 6. That's better than a Lincoln LS (5). Worse than a Cadillac CTS (7). Worse still than my own $10,000 used Nissan 300ZX (8). But not bad. (I'd give the PT Cruiser a 6 too.)
Conclusion: The longer you live with the Element, the more its Honda-esque virtues--reliability, stability, fit and finish, efficiency--grow on you. It's what I think I'd be like as a husband! And it's great-looking. But ...[You really want to finish this thought?--ed. No.]
Update:Business Week reports that the Element's "typical buyer turned out to be 41 years old." Hah! Not exactly Gen Y. Or even Gen X. ... [Thanks to alert reader J.G.] ... There's more on Honda's demographic miss here. [Thanks to S.R.] ...
[Correction: The initial version of this review erroneously reported that the Element is assembled in Japan. It's made in Honda's East Liberty, Ohio factory. Thanks to reader J.P.H.] 12:41 A.M.
Photographs of: Honda Element from American Honda Motor Co.; Chrysler's 300c concept car © 2003 DaimlerChrysler; 2003 Pontiac Aztek © 2003 General Motor. All rights reserved.