Monday, May 16, 2011

A Review of the 2004 Honda Element

Ever since the tender age of 16, I’ve been a pickup guy.  Back then, my first set of wheels was a 1984 Nissan King Cab truck that belonged to my mom.  After getting over my initial new-found freedom, I found that the pickup was also useful for hauling.  It was also rugged and could take all the abuse that a silly teenager could dish out.  My mom eventually got a new car, but I inherited that Nissan for my own use where I drove it for part of my college years.  I was sad to see it go.

Since then, I’ve dabbled in muscle cars, luxury cars, SUVs, and bread ‘n’ butter sedans.  I’ve only owned one truck since – a 1995 Nissan Hardbody that was also rugged and useful like its predecessor.  But marriage and kids came along, so it was back to sedan land for me.

Recently, with the increasing price of gasoline, it was high-time to ditch my beloved Buick Roadmaster.  I wanted to get a pickup truck, but I would still be stuck with high fuel bills.  Plus I still have a family to haul around.  But I wanted the ability to haul stuff, so that left me the idea to purchase a smaller sport utility vehicle or a station wagon.  However, my search for a Volvo or Subaru station wagon left me disappointed – finding a low mileage model with a low price in this area was fruitless.

My interest then turned to the Scion xB, but the first generation was deemed too small and underpowered.  My sights then hit on the Honda Element.  During my search, I found one for sale with only 75k miles.  With my wife in tow, we took it for a test drive.  In the end, we were really impressed by the functionality, so we ended up buying it the same day.  So after a few months of ownership, here is my review of the Honda Element.

Exterior: What stands out most about the Honda Element is the boxy shape.  Though the modern look doesn’t jar the eyes like it once did, this body-style is still very radical.  The hood is blunt, but somehow they managed to fit a 2.4L engine in there.  The front doors are tall and wide, while the smaller suicide doors do not have their own exterior door handle - the front doors must be opened for the back doors to be opened.  When both front and back doors are wide open, it makes for a truly cavernous opening – perfect for getting in the back seat or handling cargo.  In the rear, there is a split tailgate, much like an old-fashioned station wagon.  In our model year, the fender wheel-wells are protected by a thick, dark plastic.  Paint and fit ‘n’ finish is very high as is to be expected on a Honda.

Interior:  For such a small wheelbase, the interior of the Element is large.  There is plenty of room inside for four passengers and cargo.  Since the floor is flat and low to the ground, there seems to be even more interior room than my old Mercury Mountaineer.  The floor itself is made with a rubber/plastic-type material that is easy to cleanup – the perfect dog mobile!  The floor is fairly slick though, which means that boxes and grocery bag can easily slide around.  The two front seats are stiff but fairly comfortable. The rear seats are very flexible – they can be removed, flipped down to a bed, or even swung to the sides and attached to the grab-bar.

Front legroom for my 6’2” frame is not the greatest because the wheel-well butts into my left foot.  The gas gauge and speedometer are hard to read with their red lettering and boy-racer looks.  This base model doesn’t have any armrests either, which makes my right elbow feel conspicuously free to roam the cabin.  The automatic gear shift lever is located right on the dash and is easy to grab and use.

Engine:  The 2.4L makes 166 hp at 5500 rpm and 160 ft·lbf of torque at 4500 rpm.  Compared to some older cars I have owned, these numbers would be impressive if it wasn’t for the 3300lbs of weight being pulled around.  But still, it is a fairly smooth engine, but sounds a little wheezy when accelerating hard.

Driving: The 2.4L engine is a nice steady performer, but don’t expect to win many drag races.  Although 2.4L is a large displacement for a 4-cyl engine, the lack of low-end torque, plus the addition of an automatic transmission means low and slow acceleration.  Sure, I’ve had much slower cars in my time, but the van-like steering and view does not exactly promote spirited driving.

The handling is good, but if I take a corner a little too hot, the tippy feeling of such a high vehicle makes me quickly scrub the speed.  Parking lot maneuvers, however, are easy since the small wheelbase makes it easy to fit in small spaces.

The suspension with such a small wheelbase is a little bouncy as expected.  Driving over the potholes of West Michigan can be plenty jarring.  Of course I’m comparing this vehicle to some of the best rides in the business – a big and heavy Mercury Grand Marquis and the air-shock equipped Buick Roadmaster.  At higher speeds, highway expansion joints cause the Element to bob in a sickening manner.  This is certainly no luxury vehicle which leads to my next complaint.

Road Noise – around town, the interior noise level isn’t too bad.  Voices don’t have to be raised to be understood.  But on the highway, the carpet free interior and large interior space leads to excessive levels of road noise.  On a trip to Ikea in Canton,MI, I practically had to shout to be heard.  The stereo was getting drowned out too, leading to fairly uncomfortable trip.  The return trip was actually much better since we were loaded with boxes and blankets.  The ride was also helped by the additional weight.

Gas Mileage:  Overall MPG was initially a little disappointing.  With the first tank of mostly city driving, we got roughly 17mpg.  The second tank was only a little better.  But recently, we’ve started to return something closer to the EPA estimates.

Conclusion:  The Honda Element is a unique family-hauler.  With seating for four, removable seats and a larger than expected cargo space, this is one useful car to have around.  My only real complaint is the lack of power and poor highway manners.  But for driving around the city and taking care of the errands of life, there aren’t many cars that can match the versatility of the Honda Element.

Mileage in town:  18.7 mpg average
Mileage on the Highway: 23.2mpg average


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