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.
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.