We've always liked the Honda Element's funky looks and ultrapractical interior space, but were disappointed by the model's surprising lack of tech. This is a car designed to appeal to young, active adults, who also happen to like iPods and smartphones. Yet the Element never accommodated the digital lives of its prime demographic.
That lack has changed somewhat with the 2010 Honda Element EX. The Element now has Honda's albeit old navigation system, which brings in full iPod integration. The final piece of the puzzle, a Bluetooth phone system, is only available as a dealer-installed accessory, and not integrated with the car's other electronics.
The little locomotive
The Element is a strange-looking beast, with a cab and hood combination more reminiscent of a locomotive than a car. Our car's body color roof rails smoothed out the car's style, making it look a bit more normal.
Honda wins points by making the rear seats fold up into the sides of the car, allowing cargo room from ceiling to floor. We also like the clamshell rear hatch, which provides a bench for outdoor activities and picnics. The side doors are more problematic, as the rear doors can't be opened without opening the front doors.
Scoring points with dog owners, Honda offers a special package to make the Element more dog-friendly. It consists of a ramp, a kennel for the rear of the car, a dog bed, and other items to accommodate that four-legged friend.
Driving around town, we were pleased at how well the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine moves the Element, which reads like a large car when you stand next to it. That engine, the only one available for the Element, makes 166 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque, not overly impressive numbers, but the car felt very responsive when we pressed on the gas.
Belying its looks, the Element also felt maneuverable as we plummeted down San Francisco streets, making quick lane changes to avoid double-parked or left-turning cars. Checking if the lanes to either side were clear, we were surprised at the ample visibility provided by the side windows.
The navigation system, although old even by Honda's standards, proved useful in our urban errand running as it offers one of the most complete points-of-interest database we've seen in a car. Along with the usual restaurants and gas stations, it lists every retail establishment in the phone book.
But this DVD-based system has few other features to recommend it. The maps' jaggy letters reveal low resolution, and only display in 2D. There are no external data sources, such as traffic or weather. It is about as basic as you can get in a car, and similar to those we've seen for five years in Honda vehicles.
The navigation LCD also serves as the display for a backup camera, another useful feature in city driving. Lacking any distance or trajectory overlays, the backup camera is also very basic.