2003 Honda Element First Look

Half Moon Bay, California—
Honda hopes its boxy Element sport-utility vehicle will attract the post-collegiate, pre-employed, high-spending Gen-Yers everybody’s been courting for the last decade, buyers Honda feels are inadequately served by its current lineup. Unlike the femme-y CR-V or even the latest, softened Civic, the Element is gender-specific, going after young active males unremittingly, sort of like an all-wheel-drive Bruce Weber.

In the hands of another automaker, a marketing-led exercise such as the Element could have gone horribly wrong. A less engineering-driven company might have tried to snare the mythical twenty-two-year-old single male by slapping some cladding and bungee cords on its minivan/wagon/SUV and calling it the ultimate active-lifestyle accessory. It would have resulted in a more cynical vehicle, one that merely styled its way to the automotive endless summer, where all the dudes surf, all the chickies are blond, and everybody’s abs are ripped.

For all its uncharacteristic risk taking (new vehicle category, new development strategy, new engineering solutions), Honda has created another great Honda, featuring unexpected packaging, materials, and visuals. It also offers an unexpectedly solid driving experience.

Despite using the CR-V’s basic drivetrain and platform (2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine, on-demand four-wheel-drive system), the Element comes off like the anti-CR-V. The CR-V looks positively frumpy next to the baby-G-wagen edges of the Element. “Its uniqueness,” says its principal engineer, Art St. Cyr, “comes from its flat load floor, its clamshell tailgate, and its B-pillarless side openings, and we made all our engineering decisions around preserving those features.”

The most dramatic of these are the pillarless side doors, which open saloon-style for something Honda calls “sidegate parties.” For structural and crash-safety reasons, a B-pillar is actually hidden inside the rear door; it hooks into place via a catch on the sill. The rear door swings out a full 90 degrees, granting easy access to the two rear seats, although all the structural reinforcements and mechanisms in the rear doors mean their windows can’t go down.

The Element’s flat load floor allows sidegaters to sit, sleep, or do any number of Gen-Y things in and around the vehicle. The seats have an uncountable number of configurations; they can fold flat like a bed, and the rears can be lashed to the side windows or pulled out altogether. Like the side apertures, the flat floor required additional metal to stiffen the structure, as underbody cross-braces couldn’t be used as liberally as in most other SUVs. So Honda stiffened the body at nearly every other joint—wheel arches, doorsills, firewall—resulting in an impressively rigid vehicle with a higher bending stiffness than the CR-V.

This also results in an impressive chassis, one that leaves the front-strut/rear-double-control-arm layout free to do its work. With higher damping rates and greater roll resistance than the CR-V, the Element is composed and self-assured on the road. Its steering is a bit leaden on-center but comes alive with a little steering lock. Wheel impacts are well controlled, and the ride setting is firm and manly.

To look at Honda’s acceleration figures of 12.1 seconds to 62 mph, you might assume that the 160-horsepower four is a eunuch. But Honda’s acceleration figures are historically conservative, and the Element, with its higher curb weight but shorter gearing, felt as eager as a CR-V. (The heaviest Element will be the four-wheel-drive automatic-transmission version, weighing 3595 pounds to the base front-wheel-drive’s 3352.)

Even with so much effort focused on appealing to the young surfer dude, no one can predict who will buy this unconventional vehicle. The Element could hit its target audience squarely, or it could suffer the fate of many a “youth-oriented” car, such as the PT Cruiser, whose average buyer remembers Lawrence Welk with fondness. In the end, the marketplace decides who will drive what, not the marketer. One automotive oracle has predicted that the Element will replace the as the car of choice for forty-five-year-old lesbians. Still, you can’t blame Honda for trying. You certainly can’t fault its methods.

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