Elemental Attraction 

Honda transforms an odd box into an entertaining rec-center on wheels with its new Element

Honda transforms an odd box into an entertaining rec-center on wheels with its new Element

“I grow old...I grow old...I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” With apologies to Messrs. Eliot and Prufrock, these are my sentiments exactly. Why couldn’t there have been a Honda Element for sale during my own Gen-S heyday, so that I too might have grunged around the country in a bizzaro toaster/camper-on-wheels and done a bunch of gnarley things in out-of-the-way places during my twenty-somethings?

I was born almost exactly 25 years too early for the Element. But I love it. It makes me want to break out my old Colin Fletcher books The Thousand-Mile Summer and The Complete Walker and head for the hills for a few weeks of aimless ambling with a Honda Element as my pack mule. It’s instructive, in fact, that Honda itself bills its Element as a “base camp” for many and sundry expeditions. There are things about this vehicle that nobody else has conceived, and just pondering the possibilities produces in me an unrequited flood of nostalgia.

Let’s start with the simplest of all touches, shall we? The entire floor of the Element is this durable, urethane-coated, knobbly plastic stuff. Since Honda expects an owner will want to hose it clean from time to time, the flooring material even extends about four inches up the interior walls. Seat fabric is a waterproof psuedo-GoreTex type of stuff. In short, the Element may well be the first spitz-bath-capable vehicle ever to roll off an assembly line.

Then there are the suicide doors, which Honda politically correctly describes as barn doors because they open opposite one another. Here’s the deal. When you open up these babies (and they open wide: 78 degrees for the fronts, 90 degrees for the rears), you’re basically blowing a giant hole through the entire vehicle. It’s a completely pass-through concept, and each gatemouth opening is over 4-and-a-half-feet wide. So...the idea is to pitch camp—tents, awnings, hammocks, whatever—on either side and use this very cool, 270-watt audio-amplified Element thingy as your vestibule.

Or you can just sleep in it. Every seat folds absolutely flat, and you can line up both pairs of front and rear seats to make an ingenious mattress substitute that measure roughly 8-by-5 feet and is only slightly lumpy. If you’d rather have a sofa, just flip up one or the other rear seat longwise and hang it from a roof-mounted grab handle with the attached carabiner. If you don’t want rear seats at all, just yank ’em out and stow ’em in the garage before you leave home.

All that’s missing from the Element’s interior, actually, is a stone-ringed pit for a campfire. Unless you’re in your forty-somethings, that is; in which case, you’ll also be missing a fifth seat. Yes, the Element is an elemental four-seater, and this is belied by the fact that there’s so much cargo capacity. Even with four rad dudes in place, there’s 25 cu. ft. of backpack space. Add a coupla kayaks after you’ve eliminated the rear seats, and you’ve got 75 total cubes to work with.

No way would I ever do it all over again...but if somehow I were forced to, I’d do it all over again in a Honda Element. This is saying a lot, in fact, for a guy who did it all the first time around in a big-block V8 Monte Carlo. You see, I’ve come to appreciate the quality-of-life implications of, say, fuel economy; and when the Element posts 22 mpg/City and 26 mpg/Highway using regular fuel, that seems eminently more sane than the old Monty’s less-than-eight mpg using premium.

So what if the Element’s horsepower is roughly half of what I once took for granted? This 2.4-liter, twin-cam, i-VTEC (i.e., variable valve timing) Honda motor makes 160 hp and 161 ft.-lbs. of torque. It’s paired with a clever adaptive auto transmission, and together they comprise a very responsive, sprightly powertrain. A five-speed manual would be livelier yet, I suspect, and less expensive by $800.

When I found myself in my Element, it was a front-wheel-drive EX model without the optional side airbags ($350 extra). As-tested price was $19,910. Base models, however, start as low as $16,560; whereas the top of the line all-wheel-drive EX is only $21,310. From a driving standpoint, the Element has a sporty cockpit, accentuated by the gear selector sprouting from the center of the dash. As for seating position, I actually liked not feeling perched atop a high chair, which is the prevailing SUV idiom at the moment.

Sharing the Civic platform with Honda’s CR-V, the Element certainly exhibits similar handling characteristics. Fact is, though, it feels a tad bit zestier in the cornering department, thanks I suppose to the wider wheel stance. Otherwise, front struts and rear double-wishbones do a great job keeping the tires firmly planted, and four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS are mighty workhorses even in aggressive situations you wouldn’t typically put the Element up to.

Taken in the context of its chief rivals—the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe twins, Nissan Xterra, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Suzuki Aerio and Mazda Protege5—it’s not even a contest for the kinds of extracurriculars I used to indulge in. I’d have a Honda Element hands-down. But that was 25 years ago—you know, wa-a-ay back before snowboarding was even a figment of a notion of an idea. While I was driving the Element for a week, I wondered if I didn’t come off like one of those middle-aged Mommas in hot pants and midriff tops trying to look as flirty as their daughters. I wanted to feel young in the Element, but it made me feel old and middle-aged—or as the physicists would have it, well into my half-life.

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