I have always been fascinated with the Element, because of its incredible versatility, and the fact that it was a Honda. I was always hoping they would put a V6 in it because of its weight (3600 lbs. with AWD), but I couldn't wait any longer. I have a kid on the way, and I needed something larger than the Civic I had, because we go on a lot of road trips and do a lot of camping, and for the price, there is nothing like it out on the road. Its safety ratings are incredible, and in the '06 configuration, it still has its drive by cable throttle and hydraulic power steering.
The first thing I noticed was that the engine needed to work very hard in order to pull the car up a steep hill, and I knew completely loaded down it would want to downshift a lot to get up a mountain pass. The power unloaded is completely adequate, although I wouldn't call it quick by any measure, and the engine is definitely tuned more for torque than for horsepower, which gives it a real sense of initial pull, but makes more noise than speed up in the RPMs. The engine is the same family as the Acura TSX and the Accord, as well as the CR-V.
The owners manual only recommends the oil be changed every 10,000 miles! That's insane in my book, I don't care how well the engine is built or what type of oil you put in the car. I use Mobil 1 and still change the oil on all my cars between 3-5k miles. A good reference is to actually look at the oil; if it's black, change it.
Immediately after purchasing the car, I went to the various chat boards and clubs over the internet, and ordered a Injen cold air intake and cat-back exhaust. I was able to install the system in a little over four hours, and there was quite a difference in power. The engine growls through the intake, and the increased airflow really opens up the engine, allowing it to rev much faster. The system is dyno-ed and is said to increase torque by about 20ft./lbs. at the rear wheels, and horsepower by about 15. Good enough for around town, but I am still looking into a turbo kit for that extra grunt. I'd like something around 200 H.P.. So far, no one makes a bolt on kit, so it would have to be a custom job.
The intake sounds awesome, really allows the personality of the engine to come out. The exhaust drones a bit in the morning when it's warming up, but is rather quiet when you're not really on the accelerator, so overall I am pleased with it.
Driven lightly, the Element has been giving me between 20-22 mpg, very poor for a 4 cylinder Honda and what I was used to in my Civic (35 mpg overall). On the highway, I was seeing 26, about the same as a Corvette. Driven hard, I get around 17-19. I knew going in that I wasn't going to be amazed, just the first of many trade-offs for driving a vehicle that resembles a brick and is this heavy.
The vehicle slows down rather quickly on its own when the accelerator pedal is released, I am assuming because of its high Cd.
The steering is much lighter than my old Civic, and right on par with my '98 S-10 V6. I like that I don't have to work to hard to steer, given that it takes a lot of turns of the steering wheel to get around in a parking lot. Speaking of steering, the turning radius on this thing is AMAZING! U-turns on small streets are easy, and the short front end of the car means it's very easy to park.
The ride quality is typical Honda, geared more for road feel and sport than for luxury. Turns are amazingly flat for a tall vehicle, and I'm not sure if the AWD has anything to do with that, but I have driven it very hard on long sweeping freeway on ramps and it has never squealed its front tires or felt like it was going to tip over. If traction ever feels like it's going to slip, the rear wheels engage and just push the car through the turn. My Civic used to understeer like crazy when I pushed it hard, but this thing just digs in. Could be the lower center of gravity with the AWD system too.
I took it up to the snow to test out the traction control and AWD, and came away very impressed; no real traction control interference, and the AWD proved good moving forward. Interestingly, I am curious if the AWD system engages in reverse, because I had my front drivers side tire off the pavement over a lip of asphalt and it wouldn't budge with the transmission in reverse. The engine would rev up to about 3000 RPM, but no rear wheel engagement. I am assuming because there was to wheel slippage, that the AWD system didn't think there was any need to engage. I had to roll the car forward a bit to try and gain some momentum going backwards before the car finally got up over the lip of asphalt. Any clues? Obviously this is not a true 4x4 vehicle, and I have street all-season tires on it, but I would think it could have done a little better.
I LOVE the plastic body panels, and I would never have bought it had it come with painted metal panels like the newer models. I think Honda should stop trying to compete with Scion and go back to making the utilitarian Elements. I do a lot of camping, and I know I'll be rubbing up against the panels. The Cabana that attaches to the clam shell rear is awesome, and paired with the privacy curtain will make the inside of the car almost livable. The car seems much bigger inside than looking at it from outside. I always fold the front seat back and sit in the rear seats, a great feature.
The PVC floor of the interior is very slippery, and I would recommend getting the soft rubber floor mats offered as a remedy for things flying around in the back. I love not having to worry if I have dirt or mud on my shoes before I get in, knowing all I have to do is vacuum it out later, no messy stains to worry about. There are a lot of small crevices that things could get into, but again, all you need to do is take a vacuum to it and they are clean. I wouldn't hose it out, but mopping it every once in a while is good.
The seats aren't the most comfortable, but they are adequate and the weather resistant material is great! The sight lines from the drivers seat are great, all that glass makes for a great view ahead and behind. I haven't had a problem changing lanes either, and the raised seating position makes seeing other vehicles easy.
The seatbelts are annoying, in as much as you have to unbuckle and open the front doors to let the people in the back out, but the suicide doors are so cool, and when you open all the doors, access to the interior is unmatched, great again for camping or tailgating, or just unloading the vehicle. The rear seats fold completely up for more storage, or simply take them out. The roominess inside with the seats out is amazing for such a short car. I'm 6ft. and with the rear seats out and the fronts moved forward, I can lay down comfortably in the back with room to spare.
I love the rear detachable sun roof. When I stop along a mountain road and stretch out in the back seat, I can take off the sun roof completely and lay back to a great view of the sky. But why no moon roof in the front?
This car is definitely a niche vehicle. It will please many, while annoying the rest. This is why Honda makes both the Element and the CR-V. The trade-offs to me are worth the price of the car, it really is an amazing piece of engineering, and I will have it for a long, long, time.