Honda has a knack for creating vehicles to occupy a niche within a niche. A perfect example is its S2000 sports car. While it is a two-seat roadster, it nicely bridges the gap between the less expensive Miata and the more expensive BMW Z4 & Porsche Boxster, while offering performance in the league of the more expensive German cars.
In much the same way, the Element is the SUV nobody else was building. Good looking, in a quirky way, its urban style belied strong recreational capabilities. Designed specifically to appeal to outdoor enthusiasts, the Element is fun, funky and singularly utilitarian in a way no other automotive offering can approach.
Introduced in 2002, as a 2003 model, there has been but one generation of the Honda Element. And, by all appearances that is all there will ever be, as Honda has announced the discontinuation of the model at the end of the 2011 model year.
Honda Element: 2003 - 2006
Based on Honda’s CR-V, which in turn is based on Honda’s Civic, the Element was designed specifically to haul various types of sports equipment and the other paraphernalia of people heavily engaged in outdoor sports. Capable of being bucket washed clean, the Element’s floor is covered with textured urethane. The fabric upholstering the seats is similarly tough and stain-resistant. The individual rear seats recline, fold, and are also removable. The tailgate is configured in a clamshell arrangement, providing a seating platform one can use to put on boots, a wetsuit, snowshoes, or the like.
A five-door hatchback design, the Element’s middle two doors open outwards from the front, in a manner similar to the old Lincoln Continental’s “suicide doors”. However, rather than opening independently the way they did on the Lincoln, the Element’s front doors have to be open before the rear doors will open.
This configuration enabled Honda’s engineers to create large openings on both sides of the Element to permit easy loading and unloading of large, bulky items. To make up for the potential loss of structural rigidity, the engineering team specified reinforced joints, strengthened lower side sills, larger cross members, enlarged rocker panels, and five bulkheads per side.
A 156-horsepower 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine developing 160 ft-lbs of torque provided propulsion for the original Element. Offered with either front-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, the original Honda Element came with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Two trim levels were offered at launch, DX and EX.
Model year 2004 was marked largely by a new paint color, 2005 saw the introduction of an LX model, replacing the DX. Side airbags were offered as an option. EX models got satellite radio and MP3 audio as standard equipment. Up until 2006, all Elements had black fenders, bumpers and headlight surrounds. MY’06 saw the introduction of the fully painted EX-P model, though its front fenders were still plastic.
Honda Element: 2007 - 2010
Model year 2007 was one of significant change for the Honda Element(well, as significant as it’s ever likely to get anyway, given the Element has hit its sell-by date). Engine output was increased to 166 horsepower and the four-speed automatic transmission was replaced with a five-speed automatic. In addition to the engine and transmission upgrades, stability control and side curtain airbags were added to the Element’s roster of standard equipment offerings. EX-P was dropped, as all 2007 Element models featured fully painted bodies.
Also in 2007, Honda offered Element SC, a SEMA-ish version of the Element with specially styled 18-inch alloy wheels, a lowered suspension, a unique bumper and grille, projector beam halogens, a unique seat fabric trim and (gasp!) carpeting. The 2007 Element also has the distinction of being voted Dogcars.com’s “Dog Car of The Year”.
For model year 2009, Honda introduced a dog friendly package as a concept car at the New York Auto Show. The dealer-installed package includes a pet restraint system to help dogs stay in place when the Element is underway. To help older dogs get into the Element, an extendable cargo area load-in ramp was specified. Fido gets a 12V DC rear ventilation fan, and you get second-row seat covers with a simple beige dog-outline pattern design to match the bed cover fabric to protect your seats. A set of all-season rubber floor mats with a toy bone pattern, "Dog Friendly" exterior paw print emblems, and a spill-resistant water bowl complete the $1,000.00 package.
Model year 2009 also ushered in a redesigned front end, metal front fenders, squared wheel arches, and an optional sat nav system.
Honda Element: Current Model
Entering 2011 as a lame duck model, no significant changes were made to the Element. In fact, 2011 is more about what was killed rather than what was added. The SC model was dropped and the nav option went away as well. The manual transmission is gone for 2011 too.
Honda Element: Summary
Benefiting from the legendary reliability of Honda products, as well as its unique style and outstanding utility, the Honda Element is an excellent secondary market consideration. Some reviewers ding it for being underpowered, but Honda never billed the Element as a fast car.
There have been a few recalls, the most significant of which was for the automatic transmission installed in 2005 to 2008 Elements. According to the recall information, the secondary shaft bearing can be damaged if a driver quickly shifts between Reverse, Neutral, and Drive—like you’d do if you were trying to “rock” the vehicle free if it became stuck in mud or snow.
Damaging the bearing can cause the engine to stall, or it make it difficult to put the Honda Element in Park. Honda is updating the automatic transmission’s software to soften the transition between gears—thus reducing the possibility of damage.
To learn the nature of other recalls for the Honda, simply run an Internet search for “Honda Element recall”, incorporating the model year of your interest.
As usual, we strongly advise subjecting any used auto you seriously intend to purchase to a very thorough pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic, one highly knowledgeable of the vehicle of your choice.