When it comes to small, sporty cars with a practical, youthful appeal, there’s no doubt that Honda’s Civic is a favorite. But today’s Generation Y buyer doesn’t necessarily want a vehicle that’s equally appealing to mom and dad. They’re looking for something a little more extreme. Well, to meet that need, Honda is doing something they rarely do, and that’s taking a chance. And they have come up with a new concept that they hope will find a home in this narrow and very fuzzy segment of the market. Will they succeed, or will they find themselves out of their ‘‘element’‘?

If the public reaction we got during our two week fling with the new 2003 Honda Element is any indication of its future success, Honda is definitely in their element. But our time spent with the Ohio-built Element also revealed that even the most well thought out, target group-based marketing plan can be completely skewed by reality. Because while Honda marketing honchos went to great lengths to explain how the Element is targeted at Generation Y single males, we found plenty of tot-toting boomers who found it mighty intriguing, too. And why not? The Element’s cavernous interior is packed with plenty of innovative features that all generations should find appealing.

But first, let’s start with the way they’re packaged. The Element’s boxy, love-it-or-hate-it appearance is drawn from Honda’s Model X concept which debuted at the 2001 North American International Auto Show. The two-toned bodywork is steel and composite body panels, designed to handle plenty of rough and tumble abuse. And the Element rides on Honda’s Global Compact Platform and is structurally similar to the CR-V SUV. A foot shorter, but almost 8 inches taller than the CR-V, the Element’s 62 inch track is wider for even better stability. The Element also comes with standard 16 inch wheels, versus the CR-V’s 15 inchers. But then the Element really goes its own way with a clam-shell style side door configuration. With the front doors opening at a 78 degree angle, the rear doors at 90 degrees, and no B-pillar to get in the way, the Element offers a wide minivan-like side opening for easy loading of friends or furnishings.

The low and completely flat floor helps, too. And that floor is constructed of Thermoplastic Olefin Topcoat or TPO, and coated with urethane, rendering it virtually indestructible and extremely easy to clean with a wet sponge. Also easy to clean are the comfortable, manually adjustable, front bucket seats, which are covered in a durable, waterproof fabric. Both have 11 inches of fore-aft travel, and the driver gets manual height adjustment. But when it comes to seating options, that’s just the beginning. Both front seats lay flat into the rear seats to form a comfortable recliner. Lay the 50/50 split rear seatbacks flat too, and you have the makings of a bed.

For cargo hauling, the rear seats can be flipped up to the sides or removed completely. Versatility continues with a split tailgate that doubles as a seat, and a folding front passenger seat that lets you load items up to 9 feet long. Four-wheel drive Elements add a removable rear skylight to handle the tall items you can’t go home without.

Back up front, behind the tilt steering wheel, the driver faces a color keyed 3-pod gauge cluster, and to the right an abbreviated center stack that houses, in the up level EX model, the controls for the 270-watt audio system with an independently controlled subwoofer. This system also features a port to plug in an MP3 player. The center stack also contains the large, CRV-style rotary climate controls and a rally style shifter from the swift Civic Si.

Under the hood you’ll find the CR-V’s 2.4 liter, twin cam, 16-valve I-VTEC four cylinder. This high strung little powerplant produces 160 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque. Our front-drive EX tester briskly moved to 60 in 8.1 seconds, and on through the quarter mile trap in 16.2 seconds at 86 mph. The engine revs quickly, and our drivers were impressed with the strong torque throughout the rev band. Our Element’s 5-speed manual also received rave reviews for its preciseness and just- right feel. A 4-speed automatic is also available, and so is the CR-V’s capable Real Time 4- wheel drive system.

Element’s handling and ride quality are handled by a toe control MacPherson strut setup up front, and due to the low, flat floor, a compact double wishbone system in the rear. That compact design cuts down on the suspension travel somewhat, so the ride is stiffer than the CR-V’s, and its boxy styling makes it look rather ungainly. But those looks are deceiving, as the Element hustled through our low speed slalom test with surprising agility. There is just a tad of understeer in turn in and the variable assist rack and pinion steering is quick and responsive with a decent amount of feedback. Body roll is also minimal for a vehicle that looks so top heavy.

The Element’s 4-wheel drive disc braking system is equally up to the task of stopping. With large 11 inch rotors and the EX’s standard ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution, we averaged stops from 60 in a good 126 feet.

When it comes to the 2003 Element’s pricing and availability, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that prices will start around $16,000 for a front-drive DX, and top out at under $23,000 for a well optioned 4-wheel drive EX. The bad news is you’ll have to wait until December to buy one. Because that’s when front and 4-wheel drive automatics and front-wheel drive manual Elements will arrive in showrooms. A 4-wheel drive manual will follow next spring.

Only time will tell if this rather daring move for Honda, in both concept and styling, will pay off. But with its durable jack-of-all-trades interior, quality Honda powertrain and proven 4- wheel drive system, and all around frisky appeal, our bet is there will be plenty of buyers of all ages who will find this an essential ‘‘Element’’ to their driving pleasure!


  • Engine: 2.4 Liter, Twin Cam, 16-valve I-vtec 4 Cylinder
  • Horsepower: 160
  • Torque: 161 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 8.1 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 16.2 Seconds @ 86 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 126 Feet