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Review: 2003 Honda Element DX 4WD

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SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide


    People - friends, family, and strangers alike - ask me questions 
about cars. Interestingly, the car I have been asked about the most 
over the past year, by an extremely wide variety of people, is 
neither a 200 mph sports car nor an equally exotic ex-military SUV. 
It's a simple, inexpensive medium-sized crossover vehicle - the 
Honda Element.

    OK, I'll admit to being, as the marketing types say, an ``active 
lifestyle'' person. (And I have the aches, pains, bruises, and sprains 
to prove it....) Most of my friends fit the category, too. Mountain 
biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, backpacking, skiing, surfing, and 
camping interest all of us to some degree. The specification of the 
Element that attracted the most interest was not its unique styling, 
or its economical high-tech engine and drivetrain. No, the questions 
most asked about the Element were 1) Can I really hose out the 
interior? and 2) Can I sleep in it?

    Now, those two attributes were once main attractions for utility 
vehicles, before they moved upscale to become sport-utility vehicles 
outfitted with the finest leather and burled wood interiors. A clean, 
dry dog can't go inside one of those, let alone a muddy bicycle, wet 
waders, or a surfboard. A pickup truck can swallow dirty gear in 
the cargo bed, and that bed can provide a decent bivouac, but there 
is no direct access between the cab and bed. There was a market 
niche waiting to be filled, and Honda filled it in an unusual way.

    Going from the assumption that most active people are young, or 
at least young at heart, Honda kept its ``active-lifestyle vehicle'' 
simple and inexpensive. Based on the ``Model X'' concept vehicle 
that debuted at the 2001 North American Auto Show, the Element 
combines extreme interior space and versatility with rather, well, 
elemental styling to unique effect. It is offered in basic DX and 
fully-equipped EX grades, and numerous customization options are 
available from Honda. Both are available with front- or full-time 
single-range four-wheel drive, and powered by a 2.4-liter, 160-
horsepower four-cylinder engine.

    I've been driving a 4WD DX for the past week and have become 
rather attached to the vehicle. Time didn't permit any outdoors 
adventures, but it performed well in everyday life, with plenty of 
room for four and great access to its interesting interior. Power was 
more than adequate. In answer to those two questions above, you 
can wipe down the interior easily enough, but hosing is probably 
not a great idea - water tends to easily get where it shouldn't. But 
you can sleep inside. If not as comfortable as a real bed, it beats a 

APPEARANCE: Yes, it is the box it came in.... The Element mixes 
industrial two-box utility with influence from the ``anime'' school of 
 Japanese animation familiar from video games and animated 
movies. The fenders, bumpers, and roof side panels are gray plastic 
(metallic-look on the EX) for protection from dents and scratches 
as well as for style, while the rest of the body panels are normal 
painted steel. Despite the disparate materials, the Element's looks 
are well-integrated. There are plenty of large SUVs that seem to be 
styled for intimidation; the Element has a whimsical negative 
intimidation factor and brings smiles, not scowls.

COMFORT: There is a certain advantage to a box with a high 
ceiling and low floor. Space. There is plenty of that inside the 
Element, and, thanks to the wagon-like tailgate and B-pillarless 
``Side-Gate'' doors that, like those of some pickups, open with a 
front-hinged front door and rear-hinged rear door, access is very, 
very easy. Interior appointment is geared toward functionality and 
ease of maintenance, with sturdy plastics than can be wiped clean. 
In the DX level, everything is manual except for the front windows; 
the EX gets power mirrors. The instrument panel is functional and 
stylish; as in the Civic Si, the shifter comes out of the bottom of the 
center stack. Here, this allows a walkthrough from the comfortable 
front sport bucket seats, although care must be taken not to step on 
the cupholder console. According to Honda, there are over 64 
possible interior arrangements. Both the front and the two rear 
seats recline fully, providing sleeping space for two, and the rear 
skylight gives a view of the stars. The rear seats individually fold up 
to the side, and are secured by a quick-draw carabiner-like device. 
They can also be removed. Bicycles, packs, skis, snowboards, short 
surfboards, and other large or bulky items fit inside, and there is 
plenty of storage for smaller things as well.

SAFETY: The Element has safety-cage unibody construction with 
front and rear crumple zones and side protection. It has top ratings 
in both government and IIHS crash tests.

ROADABILITY: The ``sport'' in the Element's specification is what 
you drive to more than the driving experience, but its road manners 
are hardly those of an old utility vehicle. On the road, despite its 
height, it feels like a compact wagon with a low center of gravity. In 
normal use it is not tippy, and handles strong crosswinds better than 
its boxy shape implies. Built on Honda's ``Global Compact 
Platform,'' the Element is structurally similar to the CR-V, and a 
cousin to the Civic. Its rigid unibody structure and fully-independent 
suspension, with modified MacPherson struts in front and double 
wishbones at the rear, gives it car-like ride and handling 
characteristics. Just don't expect to keep up with a Civic Si or 
S2000. ``Real-Time 4WD'' gives extra traction when needed, and 
even in 4WD trim the turning circle is small, for great 

PERFORMANCE: Active people of all ages are rarely on an 
unlimited budget. They would rather spend what they do have on 
recreational equipment than on gas, and the Element won't 
disappoint them. Its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine uses the latest 
version of Honda's VTEC variable valve timing and lift technology 
for good power output and fuel economy, with low emissions levels 
as well. An un-SUV-like 20+ mpg is easily available. Maxima of 160 
horsepower and 161 lb-ft of torque, with good power right from a 
stop thanks to the i-VTEC system ensure good acceleration for its 
class around town and for freeway merging. Steep hills pose no 
problem. The most common transmission is expected to be the four-
speed automatic with which my Element was equipped. No 
complaints, and I never really wished for the five-speed manual. 
Honda has discovered torque.

CONCLUSIONS: Unique style meets substance in the Honda 

2003 Honda Element DX 4WD

Base Price			$ 18,300
Price As Tested		        $ n/a
Engine Type			dual overhead cam aluminum alloy 4-
                                 cylinder with ``i-VTEC'' variable
                                 valve timing and lift control
Engine Size			2.4 liters / 144 cu. in.
Horsepower			160 @ 5500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			161 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		101.4 in. / 169.3 in.
Curb Weight			3518 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        22
Fuel Capacity			15.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/70 SR16 Goodyear Wrangler
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent control-link
                                  MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Drivetrain			front engine, automatic on-demand 
                                  single-range four-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		21 / 24 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est. 11  sec

at press time option information was not available.
Standard price for an Element DX 4WD auto is $18,300
Destination charge is $ 460
Optional equipment included:
Alloy wheels
Air conditioning