2005 Honda Element
Photos: Honda. Test vehicle not exactly as shown. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

I get a big kick out of the pure utility and oddball looks of the Honda Element and that’s Honda’s biggest problem in a nutshell.

I’m 46 and when the Element was introduced in 2002 it was aimed at men under 25. This boxy utility vehicle with the rear-hinged side doors that open wide enough to welcome a deep freeze appeals more to 40-to-60-year-olds than 20-somethings, say dealers.

They thought hip-hop loving young people who watch South Park and the Simpsons before heading out to compete in the Canadian Snowboarding Championships (which Honda Canada has sponsored) would get cranked up about the Element. Turns out Element buyers are mostly budget-conscious family-types like me. If you like body piercings, tattoos, super baggy jeans and turned around baseball caps, you’re probably not driving an Element.

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

And for Honda, that’s not good. This little truck – my 10-year-old calls the Element a “baby Hummer – is symptomatic of a larger challenge facing Honda. The rumblings began in earnest a year ago with a story in the Wall Street Journal noting that the Honda Civic was no longer the favourite ride of young California car enthusiasts. That stung because for 20 years the Civic had been the tuner’s first choice among compact and subcompact cars. Not now.

Since the Journal took aim at Honda, other critics have kept harping about the Japanese automaker’s overly conservative styling and marketing. As Todd Turner, president of the CarConcepts consulting firm in Thousand Oaks, California, put it recently in Automotive News, Honda has “definitely lost its mojo.”

Honda Canada president Hiroshi Kobayashi denies that a lack of “mojo” is the reason why some Honda products now are being sold with various giveaways and incentives, almost unheard of for Honda. But he is willing to concede future Honda products, especially the Civic, need a stronger emotional element.

For me, well my suburban sensibilities get pretty hyped about an affordable ($23,900-$28,600) utility truck with a cavernous and scrubbable interior that boasts back seats capable of collapsing and flipping-up this way and that.

No, you can’t hose the interior; if you do, you’ll short out some of the electronics. But you can wipe the cabin down with wet rags thanks to the rubber-and-plastic cabin. So bring on those muddy boots and soaking wet dogs.

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

What you have here is perfect for busy families: a storage locker on wheels. No fancy wood trim, leather seats and pile carpeting here. Instead, we’re talking about a big moving box with cupholders. And then we have those rear seats that recline to form a comfy bed. Lay them flat, remove the available glass roof panel, dive into your sleeping bag and look up at the stars on a summer night.

Sure, the styling is almost cartoonish — Japan’s answer to America’s Pontiac Aztec and Germany’s Volkswagen Thing. Yet Aztec and Thing owners are upbeat about their cars and they love the styling in a kind of reverse snobbery sort of way.

My neighbours love the Element, too. But they’re all relentlessly, unredeemingly middle-class parents with kids in elementary and high school. Most of us still face home improvement chores on the weekends, in between hauling around our youngsters and their gear to hockey, soccer, baseball and dance practice. Let me tell you, the smallish, squared-off Element is a champ in the kid-hauling department.

The basic Element comes as a front-driver with air conditioning and an AM/FM stereo compact disc player with four speakers and an integrated roof antenna, power windows/door locks/mirrors, tilt steering wheel, flip-up rear window and useful cargo tie downs and lighting. Seating for four is covered in a durable cloth. The priciest Element adds all-wheel drive, a seven-speaker stereo with amplifier, two power outlets rather than one, silver alloy wheels, and even dual vanity mirrors.

All Elements are powered by a 160-horsepower, 2.4 litre four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. The four-speed electronic automatic transmission is a $1,100 option. Base FWD models start at $23,900. An absolutely loaded AWD Element will run you no more than $30,000 plus Freight and taxes, which is well below the average transaction price for a new vehicle in Canada last year — $ 31,508, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

2005 Honda Element

2005 Honda Element
Click image to enlarge

Regardless of equipment level, the Element is brilliant at carrying people and stuff – even four long-legged adults. In fact, the Element’s back seats are roomier than the fronts. If you need versatile cargo space, fold up the seats against the sides of the cargo bay to make room for gear. Or pop them out to leave a flat floor. The forward-opening second doors open wide and the hatch folds down for more loading, or tailgate picnicking.

Big as it is inside, the Element is 102 mm or four inches shorter than a Ford Escape and 152 mm or six inches shorter than a Subaru Forester. It’s as easy to park as a Honda CR-V sport-utility vehicle (SUV) with which it shares many underbody pieces.

On the road, the lightweight (1,600 kg) Element has no trouble keeping up to traffic and fuel economy is excellent (10.8 city/8.3 hwy. in litres per 100 km for a loaded four-wheel drive Element). This is no sports car, but the Element is nimble enough for a little truck.

I suppose the Element may end up being a funny-looking footnote to auto history, but for many its combination of oddball design, total usefulness and Honda’s quality reputation make it a sensible purchase.

Technical Data: 2005 Honda Element AWD

Base price (AWD) $28,600
Options $1,100
Freight $1,425
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $31,225
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 (4-speed automatic)
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 mpg) Imperial
  Hwy: 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg) Imperial
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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