Honda introduced the Element several years ago as a rugged, go anywhere, do anything, carry anything youthmobile. Eschewing graceful, sweeping lines for the appearance of a shipping container, the Element had its own kind of "stick it to the man" coolness. With its double doors on one side, low tailgate, and fold-up or removable seats, you could haul a month's worth of camping equipment. With optional Real Time four-wheel drive, you could traverse the dirt, sand, and snow with ease.
Now, with the SC, the rugged, hose-it-out Element dons city duds and is living the urban life. By replacing the gray or black plastic side panels with matching painted surfaces, throwing on radical 18-inch rims, and carpeting much of that plastic floor, the Element is now in its element-in town.
The SC gets much more to distinguish itself. A tuned sport suspension drops ride height by just over three-quarters of an inch. The SC gets 30 percent firmer springs and dampers and stiffer front and rear stabilizer bars, along with a six percent faster steering ratio. While hardly a sports car, the SC is more fun to drive with its more immediate response to sudden maneuvers.
It's a lot more fun to look at, too. My Root Beer Metallic test vehicle stood out from the LX and EX models with its unique grille and projector headlamps up front, custom painted bumpers, and bold alloys, all enhanced from lowering the whole thing.
Inside, SC models with the Root Beer or Nighthawk Black bodies get a copper colored instrument package. Using piano black trim in place of the typical silvery plastic adds a surprising elegance. The fabric pattern on the seats and doors is called "tattoo." It looks like those strips of wavy lines that many people are choosing to adorn their arms with these days. Carpeting the passenger area cuts the echo but removes the camping practicality. It's unlikely that buyers will care.
Every Element benefits from a 10-horsepower boost in its four-cylinder engine. It now puts out 166 horsepower, which, through a standard five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic, gives it plenty of pep. While all Hondas aim for maximum fuel economy, this one gets a decent 22 City, 27 Highway. It does weigh 3,500 pounds, after all. Surprisingly, the automatic earns slightly better economy numbers than the manual model. Today's computers drive more efficiently than the humans behind the wheel. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the Element a 6 for both the Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas scores.
The Element will get you there safely. It features a package of front and side airbags as well as side curtain airbags for head protection. The Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system can sense oversteer and understeer, terms that mean the car is turning faster or slower than your intention, and can adjust brake pressure at each wheel or reduce engine power to bring the car back into line.
The Element may be basic looking, but it comes well equipped. Even things like a tire pressure monitoring system and keyless entry are standard. And the SC gets a 270-watt audio system with seven speakers, including a subwoofer in the dash.
Living with the Element is nice for the most part. You sit up high enough to see over some cars, the controls are well weighted and designed, the interior is quiet, and the shape is very practical. I bought two bicycles during the car's stay with us and I was able to bring them home from the store, standing up, with only their front wheels removed. The fold-up seats create a long, high, and wide space-think big screen TV (we didn't buy one of those). The only weak spot, I thought, was dealing with the center-opening double side doors. You must open the front in order to open the back, which hinges at the rear. On a wide open driveway, that's no big deal, but in parking lot situations it can be awkward. I also found it hard to get side sun protection-the visor covers only the front half of the upper window. The area around the windshield mirror is unprotected, too, so driving west in late afternoon or early evening (pick your season) can be a little difficult.
Element prices start at $18,980 for the LX model, move to $20,990 for the somewhat fancier EX version, and will run you $22,775 for an SC. Add an automatic transmission for $800, or four-wheel-drive (LX and EX only) for $1,400. Add $595 for transportation costs, too, regardless of model.
Like all Hondas, the Element is proven for reliability, quality, and reasonable fuel efficiency. If you can warm to its looks, it could be your ideal urban camping vehicle.