2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Unusual boxy vehicle carries a lot of stuff

When people see a Honda Element for the first-time, they often ask, “What is it?” What they probably mean is, “Why is it?”. The Element’s unusual, bulky shape and its contrasting painted and plastic body panels are different to anything else you’ll see on the road. Why would Honda build such an unusual vehicle?

The short answer is that Honda designed the Element for a specific group of people with a specific kind of lifestyle. Young, active people between the ages of 22 and 32, so-called Gen X and Gen Y, are the intended customers – although Honda hedges slightly by saying that it’s expected to appeal to an active, youthful frame-of-mind rather than an specific age group.

According to Honda, Element buyers want a roomy vehicle with flexible seating arrangements and a flat floor for storing sports gear and recreational equipment like bikes, snowboards, skis, skates, hockey sticks, scuba equipment, and surfboards. The Element’s plastic fenders and bumpers are there to provide a “worry-free” place to lean things like bikes or snowboards without hurting the paint finish.

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

The Element’s boxy design maximizes interior space. A tall roof, vertical bodysides, and low floor contribute to an extremely roomy interior and cargo area. Rear-hinged rear doors and the absence of a centre pillar create a huge (1410 mm/55.5 in) opening when both front and rear doors are opened. The front doors can reach an opening angle of up to 78 degrees and the rear doors can open at an angle up to 90 degrees. At the rear, a swing-up hatchback and a drop-down tailgate provide a large rear cargo opening.

Inside, the Element has a hard, flat utility floor, waterproof seating fabric, and two rear seats which flip up to the sides to increase cargo area. A removeable rear sunroof for storing tall items, like surfboards, is also available.

While front-wheel-drive is standard, Honda’s “Real Time 4WD” system is available as an option. However, the Element is not intended to be an off-road vehicle, primarily because its ground clearance (6.9 in.) is not really high enough for serious off-roading.

Two models available

2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

The Element is offered in two trim levels with a choice of standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmissions. The base Element, which starts at $23,900, is nicely equipped. Standard stuff includes AM/FM CD stereo with 4 speakers, air conditioning, power front windows (the rear side windows flip out), power door locks, power heated mirrors, variable-assist power steering, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, tilt steering wheel, height-adjustable driver’s seat, and removable flip up rear seats.

The Element Y Package model, for $25,600, adds a 6-speaker 270 watt AM/FM/CD stereo with subwoofer and inputs for digital audio sources such as an external MP3 player, premium seat fabric, a metallic-accented durable floor covering, cruise control, overhead storage bin, a folding driver’s armrest, rear 12 volt outlets, metallic trim, seat back net loops on driver’s seat, and water repellent FXC rear seat fabric.

The Element Y Package with Real Time 4WD ($28,900) adds a 4-speed automatic transmission, and a rear roof-mounted sunroof.

Roomy interior

The Element’s interior is huge for such a short vehicle. You’d never guess it, but the Element is a full foot (307 mm) shorter than a Honda CR-V. However, it’s more than four inches taller and an inch wider. It doesn’t have quite as much overall interior space as a CR-V, but its low, flat floor, upright sides, tall roof, and large cargo opening make it easier to carry bulky, wet or dirty recreational equipment.

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

The passenger cabin has plenty of headroom and legroom for four passengers, but only four… the two rear seats are separated by a centre console, so you can’t seat a third rear passenger in the rear.

I found the front bucket seats comfortable and supportive, and as they’re positioned fairly high, there’s a good view forward and aft. Shorter or taller drivers can find a comfortable seating position because the driver’s seat is manually height adjustable and the steering wheel tilts up and down. Both the front and rear seats recline, and they can be fully reclined to act as temporary sleeping quarters, although you’d probably find them a bit lumpy at four in the morning.

The Element’s retro-styled three gauge metal-trimmed instrument cluster is attractive, but I had trouble reading the numbers on the gauge faces, particularly the left tachometer. The gauges are deeply set and the numerals are not that legible. Interior quality is rugged but of a high quality finish – the rubber-like dash material can be ordered in the same colour as the exterior of the car, and looks very attractive.

The centre stack includes an AM/FM/CD stereo and digital clock, mounted within easy reach at the top. The optional premium 270 watt stereo in my test car has an adjustment for the 6.5 inch subwoofer, but despite good bass, treble and mid-range sounds, I found the overall sound wasn’t as rich as I expected from an uplevel stereo.

Three large, easy to use dials for the heating and ventilation system sit prominently in the centre dash area, and just below that the transmission lever sticks out of the lower portion of the dashboard. This position makes it easy to reach, but in the ‘Park’ position, it’s a bit close to the heating controls.

The lower part of the dashboard includes open storage bins with dividers – the bins are shallow and items stored there slide around and may fall out while driving. As well, passengers tend to use these crevices for discarded candy wrappers and other garbage which looks rather untidy. The dash also includes two 12 volt powerpoints.

Despite all the interior space, there is a lack of covered, secure storage areas. The lower centre console in my test car was filled up with a large subwoofer – base models have an open storage bin there. Between the front seats is an open storage tray with two cupholders, and a third cupholder for the rear passengers, but this space could have been used for a lockable storage bin and armrest. There is an optional covered storage area in the overhead console.

As mentioned, the rear bucket seats can be folded up against the sides of the interior to increase cargo room, or they can be removed entirely. The rear cargo door consists of a lift-up hatch and a small drop-down tailgate which can support up to 200 kilograms. The cargo opening is large: 43 inches wide and 40 inches tall. The cargo area is 27 inches deep, and if you remove the rear seats, the load floor is 65 inches in length. Even longer items like skis can also be slid underneath the seats in their normal positions. The floor is covered in a waterproof rubber-like dimpled non-slip material that is perfect for storing wet or snow-covered recreational equipment such as skis, bikes, boards, or scuba gear.

The rear side windows do not roll down but they do flip out. My test vehicle was equipped with the optional rear sunroof with a removeable glass panel – handy for storing long items like surfboards, lumber, curtain rods, carpet rolls or anything really long.

Doors are awkward

The Element’s rear doors swing out from the rear, but can only be opened after the front doors have been opened. The rear door handles are located on the inside edge of the rear doors. As well, the rear doors must be closed before the front doors. The benefit of this design is that there is no centre pillar between the doors and with both doors open, the opening is huge.

2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

The downside is that rear passengers must wait until the front doors are opened to get out, and when they get back in, they must close their doors before the front passengers. This sounds simple in theory, but I found this setup awkward. A better solution would be a sliding side door, like the old Nissan Axxess used to have.

As well, the driver and front passenger’s shoulder belts are attached to the rear doors. This means that the driver or front passenger must unbuckle their seatbelts before the rear passengers can open their rear doors (assuming the front door is open). This seems like a design oversight to me..

With no centre pillar, you might expect the Element’s body to be weaker in a collision, but Honda says the Element is expected to meet the highest collision safety standards achievable for front and side impacts.

Driving impressions

It’s a fairly low step-in height to the driver’s seat, but the driving position is unusual. The windscreen is more vertical than most and seems far away from the driver. As well, the front windscreen pillars are quite thick, and occasionally obscure vision when turning. Visibility to the sides and rear is OK though, despite thick side pillars.

Dash controls are well-positioned, but as I mentioned, the gauges are sometimes difficult to see, depending on the lighting conditions.

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element

2003 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

On the highway, the Element feels stable and the ride is comfortable but it feels bulky when cornering – perhaps a bit top-heavy – not really surprising given its tall height. Though truck-like in appearance, the Element has a fully independent suspension, an extremely wide track, and decent Goodyear Wrangler HP 215/70R-16 tires on five spoke alloys. The Element is a competent handler, but I wouldn’t describe it as “fun to drive”. It is a very comfortable highway cruiser, and for sure stops, four wheel disc brakes are standard, however ABS and EBD are offered only with the optional Y Package.

The Element’s 160 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder engine with i-VTEC variable valve timing is more spirited than you might expect, and the Element has plenty of get-up-and-go around town. I found the engine a bit noisy under full throttle, and 80 to 120 km/h passing performance is adequate but not impressive. On the freeway, the engine revs at a comfortable 2,600 rpm at 100 km/h, and 3100 rpm at 120 km/h (with the automatic transmission). At higher speeds, there is some wind noise coming from the windshield pillars, but the engine and tires are quiet.

Fuel consumption is pretty good around town (11.0 l/100 km/26 mpg), but could be better on the highway (8.8 l/100 km/32 mpg).

The four-speed automatic transmission in my test car performed really well, even downshifting by itself when braking into a corner. I liked the Element’s supple, accurate variable-assist rack and pinion steering and its tight turning circle of just 10.6 metres (34.9 feet).

My Element was equipped with Honda’s “Real-Time” 4WD system. It runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time, but sends power to the rear wheels when the front wheels experience slippage. The system consists of a power take-off from the transmission that distributes torque to a propeller shaft that runs to the rear differential. The rear differential contains two internal hydraulic pumps – one driven by the propeller shaft and one driven by the rear wheels – that circulate fluid through an internal multi-plate clutch system. When wheel slippage occurs, the flow rate is greater from the propeller shaft pump and forces the clutches to progressively engage, sending up to 70 percent of the torque to the rear wheels in slick conditions and 30 percent in dry conditions.

My test-drive occurred during dry and wet conditions, and I could not really tell when it was engaging. The true test is on ice or snow, and that I’ll have to leave for a winter test-drive.

Competitor overview

The Honda Element is such a unique vehicle, that it really doesn’t have any direct competitors. Possible alternatives include compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V ($28,900), Hyundai Santa Fe GLS ($29,850), or Toyota Highlander AWD ($34,530), or possibly an AWD minivan, but they’re usually more expensive.


A unique, boxy wagon-like vehicle with plenty of cargo space and flexible seating, the Element carries lots of cargo for its size, but the door design disappoints.

Technical Data: 2003 Honda Element Y Package

Base price $23,900
Freight $850
Options $1,700 (Y package); $1,000 4 speed auto; 4WD $2,300
Price as tested $29,750
Type 4-door, 4-passenger wagon
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, i-VTEC
Horsepower 160 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 159 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic (std. 5 speed manual)
Tires P215/70R-16
Curb weight 1631 kg (3596 lb.)
Wheelbase 2576 mm (101.4 in.)
Length 4300 mm (169.3 in.)
Width 1816 mm ( 71.5 in.)
Height 1788 mm ( 70.4 in.)
Cargo volume 736 litres (26.0 cu. ft.) behind rear seats
  2058 litres (72.7 cu. ft.) seats folded to sides
  2183 litres (77.1 cu. ft.) seats removed
Fuel consumption City: 11.0 l/100 km (26 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.8 l/100 km (32 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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