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2003 Honda Element
John Rettie

Introduction
The Honda Element is one of those vehicles that elicits that great question: What's that? Some people hate the thought of driving a car that's the center of attention, but others find that's part of the thrill of owning a car that's different from other vehicles on the road.

Honda is known for conservative styling, which is not a bad thing for the majority of people who are only looking for reliable and functional transportation. However, pizzazz and style are important ingredients if you're one of those looking for something different.

Honda has really gone out on a limb with the Element. It is a very different looking vehicle aimed at young male buyers who need a truck to haul their stuff but want the security of an enclosed cargo area and the performance of a car.

Model Lineup
The 2003 Honda Element is available in two trim levels with a manual or automatic transmission and front wheel drive. An optional all-wheel-drive system will be available half way through 2003. All models come with the same new 160 horsepower i-VTEC 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that's found in the new Accord.

DX is the entry-level model (about $16,000). It's really a starting point, however, as it does not even come standard with a radio or air conditioning. Honda expects many young buyers to opt for this model, as they will want to install their own stereo system and customize the vehicle.

EX (about $19,800) adds numerous extras such as air conditioning, alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power mirrors, stereo sound system and other features.

Automatic transmission adds about $800 to the base price of each trim level while all-wheel drive adds about $1200 to the cost. A loaded EX model with automatic transmission and AWD will top the price range at around $21,000.

Walkaround
The new Honda Element is one funky looking car. Or is it a van?

When it was first shown as a concept car in 2001 nobody dreamed Honda would be brave enough to bring it into production so quickly and certainly no one thought it would be sold in the U.S. Honda stuck with its radical concept, however, even down to the center-opening doors, an increasingly popular feature on full-size extended-cab pickup trucks.

What the suicide doors offer is great access to the rear of the vehicle from the sides with no B-pillars to get in the way. For safety reasons, the rear side doors cannot be opened unless the front door has already been opened first. Likewise they have to be closed before the front side doors can be closed. Moreover, front-seat occupants have to unbuckle their seatbelts before the rear doors can be opened as the front seatbelts are attached to the front edge of the closed rear doors.

From the front, the vehicle has a cheeky chunky look accentuated by rectangular headlights and the unusual design of the bumper. The side of the vehicle has a distinct shape unlike any other vehicle on American roads. The hood line is fairly low and leads to a vertical windshield that curves up to a roofline that sweeps back to an almost vertical rear tailgate.

The rear tailgate is split horizontally so that the lower half can be used as a seating surface for tailgate parties. From the rear the corners are nicely curved so that the Element does not look as chunky from behind. Large 16-inch wheels help ensure the Element doesn't look like a minivan. Plastic cladding runs along the lower half of the body to add character and protection from flying gravel.

Interior
Versatility is the key word in the design of the Honda Element's interior. Honda spent a lot of time designing features with flexible utility first and foremost in mind.

That does not mean it scrimped on comfort or safety. On the contrary, the Element has many of the safety features one would expect in a modern car. Side air curtains are an option. Honda designed the Element to offer excellent crash protection.

The two rear seats are raised off the floor a couple of inches higher than the front seats so that rear seat passengers can actually look over the front seats for better visibility.

The center opening doors allow easy loading of bulky objects and once inside there is plenty of room for them. The rear seats fold down easily and for greater space they can be hooked up to the side leaving an uninterrupted flat floor space. The front passenger seat back can also be folded forward to make room for a 10-foot surfboard. (That would leave room for the driver and one passenger behind the driver.) The driver's seat as well as all the other seats can be folded back making for a large if uncomfortable double bed. When parked, the Element can be set up to serve as a giant locker for surfboards and other large items.

The floor is covered in a urethane-coated material that resists water, dirt and scratches. It is easily cleaned. The seats (on all but the DX) are coated in a waterproof material designed for easy cleaning.

Storage areas abound, including large storage pockets on the backs of the front seats. Cupholders can be found on the backs of folded seats.

The dashboard reflects the simple design elements of the Element. The gauges are contained in three deep pods. The climate and radio controls are well placed. An innovative option is an auxiliary jack for plugging in an MP3 player so the stored music can be played back directly through the Element's sound system. The system included with the EX is pretty decent and includes a large sub woofer beneath the dashboard.

Driving Impressions
The Honda Element is basically a rebodied CR-V, so it is not surprising to find that it drives like one. Like the CR-V, the Element is built on the same platform as the Honda Civic. Because it is based on a car, the Honda Element rides much better and handles more predictably than sport-utilities that are based on trucks.

The Element is wider than the CR-V and it has bigger 16-inch wheels, which helps it handle the curves better than one expects of such a tall vehicle.

The Element's ground clearance and ride height are sufficient to drive off the highway, but this is not an off-road vehicle by any stretch of the imagination nor is it supposed to be.

The new 2.4-liter four-cylinder is as sweet as any Honda engine, which means it revs freely and has good low-end torque. This is a front-wheel-drive car so there is a touch of torque steer, that tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration, but nothing of real concern. As long as you shift gears at a decent rpm the engine provides plenty of power with a manual transmission, which is delightful to use as the gearshift lever is mounted up in the dashboard in the same place one would find in a modern rally car. We found the available automatic transmission to be less fun as it almost spoils the funky feel of the Element.

Summary
The Honda Element is an attractive proposition for someone who wants a genuine utility vehicle that behaves like a car. There's no denying the utility of its versatile interior. And, in terms of driving dynamics, cars behave much better than trucks. Although archaic EPA rules say the Element is a truck, it's really a modern station wagon masquerading as a hip looking van. Looks are part of the attraction here. You'll either like the Element or hate it. We found it appeals to people of all ages.

Model as tested
EX 2WD
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
East Liberty, Ohio
Destination charge
460
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
none

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
DX 2WD; DX 4WD; EX 2WD; EX 4WD
Safety equipment (standard)
dual frontal and side-impact airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
2.4-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Transmissions
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
climate control; waterproof seating surfaces; power windows; remote central locking; intermittent wipers; cruise control; steering-wheel mounted audio controls; 270-watt AM/FM/CD 7-speaker stereo; MP3/digital media auxiliary jack; removable 50/50 split fold-down rear seats; alloy wheels

Engine & Transmission
Engine
2.4-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
160 @ 5500
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
21/23
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
independent
Tires
P215/70R16
Suspension, rear
independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
4
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
43.3/55.0/41.0
Head/hip/leg room, rear
38.0/47.6/37.7

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
73.7
Wheelbase
101.4
Length/width/height
166.5/71.5/74.0
Turning circle
34.2
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
1500
Track, front/rear
62.1/62.3
Ground clearance
6.9
Curb weight
3414


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