When we reviewed the 2005 Honda Element last year, we found beneath its bizarre, boxy exterior a practical, spacious people-mover with plenty of cargo room and a number of surprisingly advanced audio features. Well, there's not much change to report for the 2006 model year. The 2006 Honda Element retains all of the preschool plastic controls, the ruggedized interior features (including a urethane floor covering), and the engine options of its predecessor. One of the few changes is the availability of color-coded bumpers, which serve to smarten up what remains a--how shall we put it--unique exterior profile. But people aren't going to buy the Element for its aesthetic design. They'll buy it because it's one of the only cars on the market that can be hosed out and left to dry without incurring any real lasting damage to its interior fittings and fixtures.
We've had a couple of years to get used to the mini-UPS delivery-truck styling of the Honda Element, so when our 2006 Element EX-P all-wheel-drive tester arrived it wasn't too much of a shock to see it up close. The P stands for paint, which Honda will now apply to the front and rear fenders of an Element for an extra $500 (for the 2007 model year, the painted panels will be standard on all EX's). Inside, the 2006 Element is all but unchanged from the 2005 model: all-round plastic fixtures and fittings suggest the primacy of practicality over comfort. Forward and rear visibility are as good as one would expect for a mobile greenhouse, although with the rear seats folded up toward the sides of the cargo area, three-quarter visibility is severely impeded.
The EX-P trim level gives the Element painted front and rear fenders.
Headroom and legroom are also plentiful in both the front and back seats, although the way the floor rises in the back may have taller rear passengers feeling as if they're sitting very close to the ground. Having dispensed with the concept of aerodynamics, the designers of the Element have reserved plenty of room for storage space: a mesh-lined, roof-mounted bin gives the driver and front passenger somewhere to store sunglasses, and additional cabin space is found in the large glove box and recess area in front of the front passenger. While there is room for a central storage console, this is conspicuously absent, and drivers find themselves reaching down into an abyss between the two seats to access cup holders and to operate the parking brake.
One of the Element's surprises is the presence of only two rear seats: for a car with such a surfeit of interior space, the ability to carry only four passengers is disappointing. Another gripe we have is the operation of the rear doors, which have no separate door handles and which can only be opened outward in suicide fashion when the front doors are open. This is a pain for independently minded rear passengers who want to come and go as they please, or when tightly squeezed in a parking space. And, in a serious design flaw, the front seat belts are attached to the rear doors, so the driver or front passenger must unlatch their seat belts when rear passengers exit.
Getting in and out of the Element's rear doors is a hassle.
Cargo room and interior versatility are two of the real selling points of the 2006 Honda Element. With the rear seats folded outwards and hooked onto the handrails, the Element boasts an impressive 75 cubic feet of cargo space. That space can also be put to use by converting the Element into a camper van, by reclining front and rear seats and turning the interior into two beds. Available only on the EX, the sunroof above the Element's rear cargo area seems designed either to allow people thus reclined to have a view of the stars or to give any on-board dogs a bit of ventilation.
Stereo for the 21st Century
The Element's central stack consists of a basically designed stereo head unit, three simple HVAC controls, and a shifter that looks like it belongs on a toy called "My First Car." The stereo comprises a standard double-DIN, single-disc stereo head unit that plays MP3s, WMAs, and regular CDs. The presence of a dedicated XM button shows that the car is wired for satellite radio; new Elements come with free activation and a free 3-month subscription. Both XM information (channel name, genre, song title, and artist name) and ID3 tag information can be accessed via the DISP button: a feature that we like.
The stereo can play music from MP3- and WMA-encoded discs, as well as from devices connected to the auxiliary input.
As we saw on the 2005 model, the 2006 Element also has a very conspicuous AUX button set into a recess above the glove compartment next to a 12-volt power supply. All audio sources play back via the Element's 270-watt, seven-speaker audio system. Sound quality for XM channels and CDs is good (if a little bass heavy) up to mid-volume, after which acoustics become buzzy and distorted. With EQ controls for bass, treble, and subwoofer set to their default levels, the arrangement of the speakers ensures that the audio system is directed mainly at the front passengers rather than the rear seats.
The aux-in jack above the glove box is clearly labeled.
Steering-wheel buttons enable control of the stereo volume, source, and channel/ track search as well as cruise control settings. Cruise control can be activated or deactivated by pressing a button to the left of the foot well.
Advanced drive-train tech
The 2006 Honda Element is classed as a sport utility vehicle, a moniker that is only half accurate. While it is difficult to argue with the Element's utility, there are few vehicles on the road that are less sporty. Our EX came with the standard 156-horsepower, 4-cylinder i-VTEC engine, coupled to 4-speed automatic transmission. The Element packs some impressive performance technology: Honda's Grade Logic Control serves to eliminate gear hunting when driving uphill or downhill; its Real Time all-wheel-drive system ensures that all-wheel drive is activated only when the front wheels lose traction; and VTEC adjusts valve timing based on engine-load demand to optimize performance and minimize emissions. Also standard on the Element are front MacPherson strut and rear double-wishbone suspension and variable-assist, rack-and-pinion steering.
In practice, the Element delivers a predictably sedate ride on the freeway, while throttle response around town is surprisingly brisk. Over inclines and unmade road (of which there is a plentiful supply in San Francisco) the Element performs well, making for a firm and assured ride, although hill-decent control would be a nice addition for the 2007 model. EPA gas-mileage figures for the Element are 21mpg in the city, and 24mpg on the highway.
For the 2006 model year, the Honda Element gets ABS as standard in all trim levels; four-wheel disc brakes and electronic brake force distribution are also standard. Other safety features include front and rear crumple zones and side-impact door beams. Despite giving the Element a maximum five stars for frontal and side impact, an NHTSA safety concern notes that "head impact events resulting in high accelerations have a higher likelihood of serious head trauma." While the phrasing of the note isn't entirely clear, its general thrust is concerning. The 2006 Element is not rated for rollover safety, but the 2003 and 2007 models both scored a less-than-impressive three stars.
The 2006 Honda Element comes with a 5-year/60,000-mile power-train warranty, a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty for non power-train components, and 60-month/unlimited-mile rust protection.
Our 2006 Element EX-P all-wheel-drive test car came with all the EX standard features (6-disc XM-enabled stereo with 7-speaker audio system; air-conditioning; MacPherson/double-wishbone suspension; ABS) and without any optional extras for a total price of $22,325. With this price tag, the Element sets itself up as a very attractive proposition to those willing to break the mold in return for a relatively economical SUV that combines practicality, versatility, and a decent audio system.