2004 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

The hills and valleys of Eastern Ontario and southern Quebec may be known for hunting moose and deer, but many people these days prefer tracking a far more
elusive quarry.

I’m talking antiques and collectibles. Hit the road on a Sunday around here and you’ll meet hoards of genteel hunters practising their sport; carting home treasures that the day before, were somebody else’s trash.

It’s an obsession, I tell you, but harmless and fun.

Often while I’m test-driving cars, I’m also hunting for rare Regency TR-1 transistor radios, Lucas fog lamps and 70s Panasonic flying saucer shaped TV-sets in local flea markets and antique stores. I haven’t found any of these things yet, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Turns out my long-term Honda Element tester is perfectly suited for antique hunting. True, you could use a van or a station wagon, but these are the obvious choices and they do have shortcomings. The Element – well, this is something else entirely. It’s big inside – very big – and its 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine (from the Accord) is economical to operate, unlike typical utility vehicles. The new-for-2004 four-wheel-drive/five-speed-manual-transmission specification gives peppy acceleration through the gears and the firm but comfortable suspension provides a smooth ride.

Based on the CR-V, it’s shorter and taller than that vehicle, with a lower floor for easy entry and loading. Surprisingly, the Element’s boxy shape produces little wind noise at highway speeds, and aside from a somewhat vague steering feel when cruising, the truck feels nimble and responsive. Seats are good for a long day’s drive without causing discomfort – you can go and go in one of these and still be ready to head for the next market or yard sale.

2004 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

Front-seat headroom is enormous (which makes anybody feel kind of small in this big little truck) while rear seat passengers sit higher, giving them a good view of the road ahead. Storage containers are everywhere (even in the roof) and the 270-watt premium audio system (part of the $1,900 “Y” package that comes with 4WD) produces thumping bass from its subwoofer when you want to get some satisfaction by singing along with Mick.

If you don’t have rear seat passengers, you can fold the seats flat, flip them up and store them against the side of the truck to make more space for your haul (or you can remove them completely). Chances are, if you find a jukebox you like, you can just slide it in on the urethane-coated utility floor with those seats out of the way.

Got something tall? Remove the optional glass skylight and it can stick out of the roof, so there’s no excuse for not buying that original street sign or vintage gas pump. Need a break? Stop, drop the tailgate and use it as a seat (it’s designed for this) while sitting in the shade of the raised rear door.

2004 Honda Element

2004 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

In a pinch, you can sleep in the Element, too (very important for serious flea marketers wanting an early start). The back windows are dark tinted, which gives some privacy, and the floor is perfectly flat. Keep a window open a little, and you’ll be right, as they say in Australia. If you want a proper camping experience, an attachable tent is available from Honda that’s installed with the rear tailgate down, giving extra legroom.

I recently visited friends camping along the St. Lawrence River. This is the second year for the Element, and you’d think people would have gotten used to its unusual looks by now. But honestly, I could have been piloting a flying saucer through the campground, such was the reaction I got. Conversations stopped, jaws dropped, children stared, fingers were pointed.

The Element’s 60-litre tank is good for about 500-kilometres using regular gasoline. Its side cargo doors, rear door and tailgate permit loading large objects, and its composite body panels resist dents and scratching. It cruises effortlessly, and comes very well equipped with 16-inch wheels and power accessories, even in base, two-wheel-drive form.

Don’t get the impression that the Element’s perfect, however. When those rear seats are folded up, they totally block visibility through the side windows. And that nifty urethane floor is great for having things slide annoyingly across it. The cup-holders between the seats are too low and shallow – put a bottle of water in one and it’ll fall over at the first corner. Having the sunroof at the back is different, but having one over the front-seat would be nice, too. Backing up could benefit from a sensor to help as it’s all guesswork and I regularly found it difficult to position the Element in a parking space.

2004 Honda Element

2004 Honda Element

2004 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

Original expectations by Honda were that the vehicle would appeal to a younger crowd, but this market segment doesn’t seem impressed. According to a recent J.D. Power & Associates survey, the average age for the buyer of an Element is 43, and Honda Canada sold nearly 3,500 of them in 2003, exceeding its first year target by 500.

When the Element was introduced in 2003, the jury was out on its unusual appearance. A year later, the jury may still be sequestered, but there’s no denying its all-round utility, economy and distinctiveness.

One more thing. On my flea market excursions, I’ve been looking for a little item called a Judson Supercharger. If you see one, I’ll give you a quick $100 for it. OK, maybe more.

Technical Data: 2004 Honda Element 4WD

Base price (FWD) $23,900
Base price (AWD) $28,100
Freight $ 1,240
A/C tax $ 100
Price as tested $29,440
Type 4-door, 4-passenger utility van
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 160 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 159 ft-lb. @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires P215/70R-16 all-season
Curb weight 1631 kg (3596 lb.)
Wheelbase 2575 mm (101.4 in.)
Length 4320 mm (170.1 in.)
Width 1815 mm (71.5 in.)
Height 1788 mm (70.4 in.)
Cargo capacity 714 litres (25.2 cu. ft.) (behind rear seats)
Fuel consumption City: 11.3 l/100 km (25 m.p.g)
  Hwy: 9.2 l/100 km (31 m.p.g.)
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty Basic 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca