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by Paul Williams
photos by Laurance Yap
Stephen Hui, a sales analyst for Honda Canada, sees his company’s new
$23,900-and-up Element as a love it or hate it proposition.
“People are either all over it, or they’re, like, what is this?” says Mr.
Hui of the squared-off, ultra-utilitarian Element. “There’s no middle ground, but we’re prepared for that reaction. We’ve deliberately designed a vehicle that’s ‘out there’.”
The Element is targeted directly to the “Gen X” and “Gen Y” population (early 30s, mid-late 20s). For automakers, this group can be puzzlingly
diverse. Some are into making money; others are environmentalists. Some are into competition, others into cooperation. Some follow fashion, and others invent their own.
Honda’s research has isolated a large sub-category that’s heavily into snowboarding, backpacking, surfing, extreme sports, kayaking and other
These people work during the week, and typically take off on the weekends, joining their friends in competitions and outings. They’ve got one foot in
the mainstream, so to speak, and the other in the mountain stream.
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And if they’re not actually doing these things, perhaps they think of themselves as the kind of people who would.
What kind of transportation would they like? Not a van, an SUV or a pickup truck. No, it would be something else entirely.
Enter the Element. It shares attributes with each of those vehicle types, without being defined by any of them.
The Element is “purpose-designed” to fit the lifestyles of people who see a vehicle as part of their gear. It’s kind of like a backpack on wheels, full
of adjustable compartments, useful pockets, helpful hooks, hidden containers, straps, flaps and tabs.
It’s also got a low-emissions engine, uses regular gas and is economical to run. Base models are front-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is available as
part of a $28,900 package.
The Element starts with the platform from the familiar Honda CR-V, but evolves in a completely different direction. It’s a foot shorter than the
CR-V, but slightly larger in all other exterior dimensions, including a wider track.
In appearance it harkens way back to the International Scout, and brings to mind other utility vehicles from the past, like the Jeep CJ, “Series” Land
Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers.
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The exterior has a two-tone theme that utilizes composite body panels for the front and rear fenders. These are impact and scratch resistant, and are components that you notice right away.
Mr. Hui acknowledges the unusual looks, but points out that, “At first, when people look at the Element they may not understand it, but then it starts to make sense, and their response often becomes really positive.”
Complementing the unique exterior is a clever interior designed to serve four functions: everyday driving, cargo hauling, “base camp” functionality
and interior sleep capability.
It’s true, you can sleep in this thing. The seats fold flat, and while we’re not talking the Ritz, it beats a tent. Furthermore, the interior cargo area
is highly adaptable. Move the seats around and it can fit large items like mountain bikes, skis, snowboards and other items up to three metres in
And if you detach and fold the rear seats up and to the side, you can fit a three-seater couch in there. Guess you could sleep on that, too!
The Element has no “B” pillar (that’s the central pillar between the doors). In its place the vertical structure of the doors has been strengthened, as have the upper and lower horizontal sills. The vehicle is expected to get a five-star crash-test rating.
The unique cargo doors open wide to accept large loads, and to allow easy entrance and exit from both sides. The front door opens to 78 degrees and the back door to 90 degrees. Put a ramp on each side of the Element, and you might be able to ride your bike right though it.
The seats are neoprene covered, a material familiar to backpackers as rugged and durable, but Honda has softened it a bit for its new function. Floors are urethane coated, and waterproof. Even the headliner is water resistant.
This doesn’t mean you can hose out the Element, but you can safely wash it with a wet sponge or cloth.
At the rear of this vehicle is a “clamshell” tailgate. The lower door folds down to create a place to sit (it’s designed to hold 200 kg). The upper glass
section provides shade and protection from the weather. When both open they expose a huge and regularly shaped cargo area, big enough to fit the
aforementioned couch, a desk and bookshelf, or a 27″ TV and a couple of chairs to watch it.
The skylight is larger than a conventional sunroof, and is located towards the rear of the vehicle. It can be tilted or removed, permitting the
transport of tall objects.
From the sound of things, you might get the impression that the Element is huge, but it’s not. As I say, it’s a foot shorter than the CR-V, although
its boxy design maximizes interior space.
In a press preview in Texas, the Element proved nimble and quick. The five-speed manual shifter protrudes from the center stack, as in the
Honda Civic SiR. It falls readily to hand and you quickly get used to its novel location. Shifting is precise and clutch action is light. Seating is
The four-speed automatic – a $1000 option on front-drive Elements, but the only transmission available with AWD – provides a slightly lower engine
speed on the highway. It therefore feels a little smoother and quieter than the manual box.
On gravel and uneven roads the Element is stable and predictable. It’s also solid as a rock, with no creaking or rattling evident. On the highway wind
noise is surprisingly low, given the brick-like aerodynamics. Strong crosswinds will unsettle it, though, requiring a firm grip on the steering
The 2.4-litre, 160 hp engine delivers brisk acceleration. Torque is rated at 159 lb/ft. Four-wheel disc brakes and air conditioning are standard, as are 16″ wheels. Anti-lock brakes and all-wheel drive are part of the optional “Y” package ($25,000).
Numerous accessories are available for Element, including an aluminum rooftop carrier and tubular sidesteps. These make the vehicle less
“elemental” but they suit it well.
Honda officials estimate first year sales of the Element in Canada reaching 5000. They’d like it to be a huge success, of course, but because of the
Element’s uniqueness, they’re really not sure how it will be received. So 5000 seems a conservative and achievable goal.
Nonetheless, if people embrace its unique looks and concept, Honda may find a broader market for this vehicle. It offers considerable utility, ease of
use and economy, along with standard creature comforts like air, power windows, and CD sound.
Current competition? Maybe a Nissan Xterra. But that’s a bigger, brawnier machine. Honda sees no direct competition, for the time being.
Although for some of the target market, competition may take the form of an old station wagon, or an 80s Volkswagen Vanagon. They can work.
2003 Honda Element
$23,900 2WD 5-speed manual (“base”)
$24,900 2WD 4-speed automatic (“base”)
$25,600 2WD 5-speed manual (“Y Package”)
$26,600 2WD 4-speed automatic (“Y Package”)
$28,900 4WD 4-speed automatic (“Y Package”)