2008 Honda Element SC review: 2008 Honda Element SC
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.
We head up this steep hill in San Francisco to put the Element through the dangerous hill start test.
• Hill start
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.
• Engine braking
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.
The shifter sticks out at a weird angle, yet we had no problem using it.
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.
The stereo shows ID3 tag information for tracks on MP3 CDs.
The only notable tech feature in the cabin is the stereo. In the SC and EX trimmed models, you get a seven speaker system with XM satellite radio and an auxiliary input mounted in the console. The single disc player reads MP3 CDs and shows track information on the radio display. You can quickly move around folders using the right hand tuning knob. The XM radio is a nice addition, and you can navigate channel categories with two dedicated buttons, while using the tuning knob to find stations. The face plate of the stereo also indicates that it has the capability to connect to a six disc changer, but Honda doesn't offer one as an option. The auxiliary input is nicely placed next to a 12 volt power point in the very deep console. However, we would really like to see full iPod integration in a car so clearly aimed at a youth demographic.
The audio system's speaker arrangement includes tweeters in the A pillars, woofers in each door, and a subwoofer in the dashboard. The system is powered by a 270 watt amp and produces sound quality we consider just above average. The sound production is well-balanced, with neither the high or low range overwhelming the system. We put in our new favorite bass response test CD, a mix from the Eighteenth Street Lounge label, and were impressed that, while we could hear and feel the bass, it never rattled the speakers. The highs came through clearly, but overall, the system didn't blow us away.
The auxiliary input sits next to a 12 volt power point in the console.
We do like the fact that the stereo head unit sits in a standard double DIN enclosure, which should make it easy to replace it with a full-featured system offering navigation and Bluetooth cell phone integration. Considering that Honda offers an excellent navigation system in its Civic and Accord models, we're surprised not to see that option with the Element.
One other niggle, the button to activate cruise control is down by the driver's left knee, next to the button that turns off stability control. This placement is horrible, as the two buttons have an identical shape, so it encourages you to look under the dashboard while driving down the freeway.
Under the hood
We were more impressed with the driving experience in the 2008 Honda Element SC than with the cabin tech. The car uses a 2.4-liter four cylinder engine producing a 166 horsepower at 5,800rpm and 161 foot pounds of torque at 4,500rpm. Although it doesn't sound like much, it pushes the roomy Element around well. We felt a good boost from the engine during fast starts, with acceleration that continued up to freeway speeds. We found the five speed manual transmission, detailed above, easy to use.
Given its boxy shape, we are surprised to find how well the Element handles.
The Element handles surprisingly well for a car of this ungainly shape, which might be partly because of the fact that the SC version is lower than the EX and LX models. We pushed it as fast as we dared along some winding mountain roads and found that it held the corners well. Of course, having the manual transmission helped, as we could jam it down to second then push it through the turns. Also helping the handling are front and rear stabilizer bars and Macpherson struts on the front wheels. The car includes a checklist of modern safety equipment standard, such as vehicle stability control, antilock disc brakes on all four wheels, and even electronic brake distribution.
For economy, the Element gets an EPA-rated 18 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, numbers which aren't spectacular considering the size of the engine. During our testing, we came in at the middle of that range, with an observed 20 mpg for combined city and freeway driving. Emissions are rated at LEV II, the minimum under California Air Resources Board regulations.
Our car, a 2008 Honda Element SC with a manual transmission, goes for a base price of $22,775. Honda doesn't offer factory options, but you can get a range of dealer accessories, such as cargo racks, wheel locks, and a security system. There aren't any major electronics offered with the dealer accessories. So with the $635 destination charge, the total price of the 2008 Honda Element SC is $23,410.
For its rating, we couldn't give the cabin tech many points as Honda offers so few options. The stereo is the only real cabin gadget, and it's a pretty run-of-the-mill configuration with its single disc slot and satellite radio. For its driving technology, we give it a better than average score for its by-wire-throttle and general responsiveness. As for design, many people consider the style of the Element very ugly, but we like its different look. However, we're docking it points for the inconvenient rear half doors.