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Considering the youthful nature of the 2008 Honda Element SC's intended market, it is surprising the car doesn't offer more in the way of modern electronics. Like the Scion xB, the Honda Element appeals to people who can appreciate an offbeat styling. Unlike the xB, the Element doesn't offer navigation, video screens, or even iPod integration.
The original Honda Element was intended for outdoorsy people who would load it up with surfboards and mountain bikes, while the newer SC trimmed Element goes for the urban crowd already enamored with the Scion xB. You could argue that an Element intended for snow and surf trips doesn't need fancy cabin gadgets (although navigation is always good for road trips), but the urban version should include something more than a subwoofer for the audio system. Instead, what you get is a very practical vehicle with electronics that top out at a decent-sounding stereo.
Test the tech: Manual test battery
Our test car came equipped with a five speed manual transmission, something we hadn't yet seen on a Honda Element. We generally like manuals, but the Element's bus-like nature calls out for an automatic. Since the manual transmission was the most stand-out feature of this car, we put it through several tests.
Traffic stop and go
Automatics are much easier to drive in dense urban areas with a lot of traffic and plenty of stop lights. But we found the Element's manual transmission relatively painless to use. The shifter sticks out of the dashboard at an odd angle, which initially looks like it would be awkward to use, however, we didn't have a problem with it. The clutch has a high take level, but it offers low resistance, so we didn't strain ourselves in frequent use of it. Likewise, the shifter popped into each gear with ease. With the manual, we could quickly pop it down to second and shoot past other cars for a quick lane change to avoid double-parked delivery trucks.
As we were testing the car in San Francisco, we tried out some hill starts on a very steep street. Hill starts with a manual can be the bane of even experienced drivers, as you have to carefully modulate the clutch and accelerator, and possibly even use the hand brake. We also had to cope with slick streets from rainy weather, which would let the drive wheels spin in place if we applied too much torque. The Element doesn't have any special hill start feature, yet we were able to get going from a stop on very steep hills with minimal rollback. Under these circumstances, we would have liked a lower take on the clutch. We were also able to accomplish our hill starts without relying on the handbrake, although it was well situated and designed for this maneuver. One aspect of the Element that helped us out is its throttle by-wire system, which gave us immediate and easily modulated throttle response, letting us apply just the right amount of gas to keep the tires gripping and pull us up the hill.
This test was relatively simple, and we didn't expect any surprises. We took the Element on a mountain drive, and used the manual transmission to maintain a safe speed on a downhill slope. Cruising down the hill in second, the Element held a speed of 30 mph. We didn't have to touch the brakes until the traffic ahead slowed to 25 mph.
We noticed early on in driving the Element that a fast start would make the front drive wheels slip with an audible chirp. The engine torque combined with our throttle input and quick clutch drop pushed the tires a little beyond their grip until the car shot forward. For our chirp test, we tried to see how many chirps we could cause in a row as we shifted up through the gears. Starting on a flat road, we hit the gas and dropped the clutch, producing a long chirp from the front tires. As the car built up speed and the rpms climbed, we hit the clutch, made a quick shift to second, and dropped it again, getting a second chirp. Proud of ourselves, we kept hitting the gas and tried the same thing shifting up to third. Although we felt a strong jerk as we shifted to third, the tires kept grip, and didn't produce any sound. We experimented with different rpm levels, making our shift to third earlier as we searched for maximum torque, but the engine just doesn't have the oomph for that third chirp.
In the cabin
The Honda Element's interior is designed for rough use, with tough materials and fabrics that can be easily washed off. But that doesn't mean the materials are ugly--rather, Honda uses a good mix of soft and hard plastics. The interior space is huge, with a ridiculous amount of headroom. Fortunately, the driver's seat has a height adjustment knob. We aren't crazy about the door arrangement, which uses full doors in front and half doors for the rear seat. The front doors must be open for you to use the rear doors, so you can't easily let someone out from the back seat.