We've always liked the Honda Element's funky looks and ultrapractical interior space, but were disappointed by the model's surprising lack of tech. This is a car designed to appeal to young, active adults, who also happen to like iPods and smartphones. Yet the Element never accommodated the digital lives of its prime demographic.
That lack has changed somewhat with the 2010 Honda Element EX. The Element now has Honda's albeit old navigation system, which brings in full iPod integration. The final piece of the puzzle, a Bluetooth phone system, is only available as a dealer-installed accessory, and not integrated with the car's other electronics.
The little locomotive
The Element is a strange-looking beast, with a cab and hood combination more reminiscent of a locomotive than a car. Our car's body color roof rails smoothed out the car's style, making it look a bit more normal.
The rear seats don't fold down; they stow up against the sides of the car.
Honda wins points by making the rear seats fold up into the sides of the car, allowing cargo room from ceiling to floor. We also like the clamshell rear hatch, which provides a bench for outdoor activities and picnics. The side doors are more problematic, as the rear doors can't be opened without opening the front doors.
Scoring points with dog owners, Honda offers ato make the Element more dog-friendly. It consists of a ramp, a kennel for the rear of the car, a dog bed, and other items to accommodate that four-legged friend.
Driving around town, we were pleased at how well the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine moves the Element, which reads like a large car when you stand next to it. That engine, the only one available for the Element, makes 166 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque, not overly impressive numbers, but the car felt very responsive when we pressed on the gas.
Belying its looks, the Element also felt maneuverable as we plummeted down San Francisco streets, making quick lane changes to avoid double-parked or left-turning cars. Checking if the lanes to either side were clear, we were surprised at the ample visibility provided by the side windows.
The navigation system, although old even by Honda's standards, proved useful in our urban errand running as it offers one of the most complete points-of-interest database we've seen in a car. Along with the usual restaurants and gas stations, it lists every retail establishment in the phone book.
The navigation system's maps, stored on DVD, lack resolution.
But this DVD-based system has few other features to recommend it. The maps' jaggy letters reveal low resolution, and only display in 2D. There are no external data sources, such as traffic or weather. It is about as basic as you can get in a car, and similar to those we've seen for five years in Honda vehicles.
The navigation LCD also serves as the display for a backup camera, another useful feature in city driving. Lacking any distance or trajectory overlays, the backup camera is also very basic.
At freeway speeds, the Element's engine still pulls well, although we had to be more careful in passing and merging maneuvers as top-end power is lacking. The standard five-speed automatic shifts down as needed, showing little hesitancy to let the engine speed rise, which is the secret to the Element's perceived power.
Five gears is all you get with this transmission.
But the lack of any gear above five also means an engine speed of around 3,000 rpm at 70 mph, which is not the most economical way to cruise. The EPA fuel economy rating for the Element is 20 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, not particularly stellar numbers given the size of the engine, but not bad considering the size of the car.
Our car was a front-wheel-drive model. All-wheel drive is available, bringing fuel economy down by 1 mpg.
The suspension is tuned on the stiff side, making long road trips a bit uncomfortable. And the upright seats do not really contribute to lounging. But the airy interior won't make you feel cramped.
The stereo won't really take your mind off many grueling hours behind the wheel, either. This seven-speaker system uses four door speakers, two tweeters on the A pillars, and a subwoofer, reproducing music with a muffled, muddy sound. The subwoofer adds some oomph, though, good for bass-heavy music.
The iPod menu lets you choose music by album, artist, and track, although not by genre, which is odd.
We spent most of our time in the car listening to music over the iPod connection, a USB pigtail in the glove box. The iPod menu on the touch-screen LCD made it easy to find music by album, artist, or track. The stereo includes satellite radio, too, and we found its interface equally easy to use.
In economy car fashion, the CD slot is hidden behind the LCD, along with a PC Card slot. This latter source is something Honda introduced years ago, and hasn't quite gotten over. To use it, you need a PC Card adapter for SD Cards, or some other memory source.
Although we were happy to finally see navigation in the Honda Element, the ancient system embedded into the dashboard was a bit of a letdown. iPod integration was a nice feature, but the audio system didn't sound particularly good, and the absence of a Bluetooth option shows that Honda hasn't really made the Element a real tech car.
As for performance, the little four-cylinder engine works surprisingly well with the bulky Element, giving it ready power, at least at low speeds. Fuel economy is only about average, as is handling. The Element is a unique-looking car, something we usually give props for, no matter what we think of the aesthetics. And the interior space is well-thought-out, too, but the side doors are problematic, with the rear doors locked in place by the fronts.
|Model||2010 Honda Element|
|Power train||2.4-liter four-cylinder engine|
|EPA fuel economy||20 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||n/a|
|Bluetooth phone support||None|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio|
|Audio system||270 watt/7 speaker|
|Driver aids||Backup camera|
|Price as tested||$26,730|