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2003 Honda Element Road Test

By Brian Moody

Category: $16,000 - $20,000 Sports Utility Vehicle
Who should buy this car: Someone looking a fun utility vehicle that won't break the bank
Comparable models in this class: None really, closest vehicles are the Saturn Vue and  Mitsubishi Outlander

The Honda Element An Exercise in Coolness.

I have owned several Honda products throughout my short 15-year driving career. The first was a 1981 Honda Accord DX hatchback that I bought used with only 45,000 miles on it. 11 years, 3 girlfriends, 2 colleges, 2 relocations, 5 project cars and 300,000 miles later I finally sold the endearing little car. It was running on 3 cylinders, but the A/C was cold and the paint was still shiny I got $500 for a car I spent only $3100 on more than a decade earlier. Now thats value. My stepmother once commented that the car looked as if I was driving my fathers car. This was most likely due to the beige paint (Oslo Ivory in Hondaspeak) and 3-door configuration her point was well taken, it didnt look like the sort of car a 23 year old college student would be driving, especially one who was such an automotive enthusiast. Besides, Americans have always thought of hatchbacks as frumpy economy cars. Truth is, if it werent for that cute little car, Id never have made it through the 2 colleges 5 project cars and Well, you get the point.  

Before I completely digress and turn this into a 1000 word walk down the lanes of yesteryear, let me just point out that under the decidedly perky body of that little hatchback were more than a few innovative features for the time. The 1.8-liter engine used multi-valve technology. There were 3 valves per cylinder, and it had an overhead cam. Also included was a built-in oil cooler, independent rear suspension, 5-speed transmission, tachometer, rear window defroster, trip meter, oil change and tire rotation indicator gauge, and a common feature on todays modern car, a driver information center with a small picture of the car and lights to indicate if doors were open, or taillights burned out. I really liked this car, and although it was no V8, a drive in other economy cars of that era, specifically a Ford Escort and Mazda GLC, revealed just how spunky and refined the little Honda was.

I later drove an 89 Accord LXi Coupe and thought very highly of that car as well. A perfect blending of sportiness and comfort plus it looked cool. Then the 90s hit. Just as Honda was gaining in popularity, it seems that every car they made became hopelessly generic. Sure the mid-90s Civic Coupe offered some hope as did the 99 Civic Si, but by and large Hondas had become boring - reliable, safe, high resale value, economical but still boring. Essentially, the Honda Accord is a car your parents drive the Buick Estate Wagon or Ford LTD for the modern era.

How on earth is this about the Honda Element you ask? Well it is and it isnt. The Element is about so much more than just another car Honda is selling; it is about a new direction the company is taking. The new Accord, Civic Si along with the Element are proof that Honda has realized they were headed for the dungeon of automotive irrelevancy. At least irrelevant to anyone under 40 kinda like Oldsmobile and Plymouth. Its really great to make good, reliable cars, but many of todays cars are so reliable that people are buying more on emotion rather than need.

Kudos to Honda for deciding to build the Element in the first place; the Honda Model X was a cool concept, but like most concept cars, no one thought it would make it to the streets in such an unmolested form.

The Element doesnt just look different; it actually delivers on the promise of truly being different. Dent resistant body panels (could Honda actually be watching Saturn?) and a rugged interior make the Element as useful as it is different.

Rear doors open in a clamshell or suicide fashion, although true suicide doors would open independent of the front doors. As a safety feature, the front doors must be open in order to open the rear doors. Once all four doors are open, the interior is quite spacious. Rear seat room is stunningly ample and those same seats can be folded down, folded up to the sides or removed altogether. Due to the Elements box-on-wheels design inspiration, headroom is plentiful. Front seat legroom is plentiful as well but the seats themselves, although comfortable, can seem a little stiff.

The Rear hatch door opens in two sections, one door flips up, while the lower half is a tailgate-type door that folds down. Again, the theme is utility and loading is a breeze. Even with just the hatch door open, the lift-in height is surprisingly low.

The entire interior is in keeping with the rugged theme. There is no carpet to soil; the floor is covered with a vinyl/rubber material that does not absorb moisture. Sand, mud and dirt wipe right out. Unlike other mini SUVs, the Element does not use hard plastic in order to achieve its rugged interior. Dash area and door panels are covered with a rubber-like material that feels as if it will stand up to all kinds of punishment without denting, cracking, fading or scratching.

Gauges are arranged in three circles, similar to the Pontiac Vibe, except that Honda finished the rings in a matte sliver rather than the shiny chrome found on the Vibe. Every surface in the Element has a nice, quality look and feel with a variety of surface textures all working together to really drive home the concept car theme.

Honda has never really excelled with regard to audio systems. Some Honda products of past have offered nothing more than simple four speaker stereos that sound flat and tinny. With the Element, Honda knows its target market, and a sorry stereo is simply something those buyers will not tolerate. As a result, the audio system installed in the Element EX is quite nice and offers adjustable mid range, bass, treble and sub-woofer. This 270-watt system utilizes 7 speakers and offers clean, deep bass and brilliant highs. The adjustable sub-woofer is a nice bonus.

From behind the wheel, the Element feels like a Honda Jeep of sorts. The upright windscreen and high seating position give a commanding view of the road, without sacrificing the funky interiors intimacy.

The Element is powered by an i-VTEC, 2.4-liter, inline-4 producing 160-hp. Power is adequate for most driving situations, but the Element is no sports car. Still, the adequate power is available across the rev range and the boxy Element never feels underpowered.

The 5-speed manual shifts effortlessly, and the odd positioning of the shift lever takes all of 2 minutes to get used to.

Around town, the Element lacks the truck-like ride that the shape and utility suggest. The suspension is surprisingly soft and there is a good deal of lean when cornering. This is not intended to be a sports car with stiffer suspension, the Element would feel harsh and unrefined. As it sits, the Element feels every bit like the Honda it is smooth and solid.

On the open highway, the main complaint is wind noise. Vehicles that are shaped like a Postal Service truck tend to have a bit of wind noise and the Element is no exception. Also, on cement highways or rutted roads the ride can tend toward the jumpy side, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Due to the tall roof and tons of side surface area, windy conditions can upset the Elements mostly compliant ride. Engine noise is virtually non-existent at highway speeds, and only during high RPM downshifts does the inline-4 make itself known. 

At the end of the day, the Element delivers on its implied promises of utility, funky coolness and durability. Combine this with everyday drivability and its a sure bet that Honda will sell a stack of these little buggies.

With tons of interior room packed into a small package and a sub-$20K sticker price, its hard find fault with the Element, especially when considering the cool factor. Low points are few and amount only to excessive wind noise at highway speed and an exterior shape that is prone to buffeting on windy days.

The Element is a bold step in exactly the right direction, and at the same time is a throw back to Hondas early days in America. Just like the early Accords and Civics, the Element offers innovative features, solid build quality, and adequate performance at a penny-pinching price. 

 

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Specifications 

2003 Element
Engine Type  2.4L double overhead cam (DOHC) Aluminum In-line 4 cylinder with variable valve timing
Horsepower 160 @ 5,500
Torque 161 @ 4,500
Fuel Recommended Regular  Unleaded.
Transmission (standard)
Transmission (optional)
5-speed manual transmission
4-speed automatic transmission
Drive Type (standard)
Drive Type (optional)
Front Wheel Drive
Real Time 4WD
Tires P215 / 70R16 All Season Radials
Overall Length 166.5"
Wheelbase 101.4"
Width 71.5"
Turning Diameter 34.9 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 3,352 lbs. to 3,595 lbs. (depending on configuration)
Fuel Tank 15.9 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon

2WD
City       Highway

4WD
City     Highway

5-speed stick 21 mpg      25 mpg n/a n/a
Automatic 22 mpg 26 mpg 21 mpg 24 mpg
Acceleration 0 to 60 N/A
Base Sticker Price  About $16,000

Standard Equipment

  • Composite body panels
  • Rear privacy glass
  • Power Windows with Auto-Up/Down Driver's Window
  • Instrument Panel-Mounted Shifter
  • Removable Flip-up Rear Seats with 50/50 Split
  • Fold-flat Capable Seating
  • Driver's Seat with Manual Height Adjustment

Major Available Options

  • Air Conditioning with Air-Filtration System (Standard on EX)
  • Remote Entry System
  • Alloy Wheels (Standard on EX)
  • Front Side Airbags with Occupant Position Detection System (OPDS)

For more information on the Honda Element, visit hondacars.com

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