The early 2000s brought about a few interesting design trends, and one of the most unusual was the fascination with boxes. The Scion xB kickstarted the fad in America, and hot on its heels was the significantly larger subject of today's spotlight, the Honda Element.
The Element was based on a concept called the Model X that was shown at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show, and aside from the retractable rear roof section like that used by the Studebaker Wagonaire and GMC Yukon XUV, there were very few changes made to the rugged, square body for production. Rear half-doors, plastic composite fenders, ultra-configurable seats and a split tailgate all made it to the final car.
Though Honda's big box was endearing for its unique looks and remarkable practicality, the model didn't make it to a full decade on the market, ending with the 2011 model year. In that time, it saw two refreshes, one extremely minor and the other moderate.
Why the Honda Element?
As we touched on above, one of the major reasons you might be interested in the Honda Element is its immense practicality. It's based on the Honda CR-V, and it's actually slightly shorter in length and wheelbase, but at 74.6 cubic feet, it has an extra 2.6 cubic feet of maximum cargo space. That's thanks to its boxy shape and nearly 8 inches of extra height. Coupled with seats that can be removed or flipped up and to the sides, it is a breeze to load bulky items from bikes to furniture.
There were myriad other versatile features. The floor throughout the cabin was a rubberized material that was easy to wipe down or lightly hose off, and it was completely flat under the movable seats for easy loading. The seats on most trims had a hard-wearing, water-resistant material. The split tailgate offered flexibility for carrying long items. Between the front seats was a movable tray or console for easy access to the rear. It was basically a tiny van that didn't look like a van.
All those useful features were wrapped around trusty and proven Honda mechanicals. Powering it was a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder making around 160 horsepower (in 2006, power dropped to 156 and then rose to 166 the next year). Either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive were available and both drivelines could be paired with either a five-speed manual transmission (until 2010) or an automatic, which had four gears until 2007 when a five-speed was introduced. And according to Dashboard Light, the Element has a great reliability score of 81.3 out 100, 35 points ahead of the average for the compact crossover/SUV segment. On top of all that, in our experience, the Element is nimble and comfortable with good steering, making it an excellent all-around vehicle.
Which Honda Element to choose?
Because the Element didn't change much through its life, you'll be well-served by just about any variant. That said, there are some things you may want to keep in mind. Arguably the main thing is transmissions. If you want a manual, you'll be skipping the 2010 and 2011 model years. And if you're looking for an automatic, you may as well try to get a 2007 or newer for the five-speed that nets an extra mile per gallon.
In addition to the improved automatic, 2007 also marked the introduction of key safety features for all trim levels: specifically ABS, side airbags, side curtain airbags and stability control. Before 2007, only the EX came with ABS and had the option of side airbags. The LX only got ABS in 2006, but no side airbag option.
Among the early Elements, you'll likely want an EX not just for the ABS, but for other convenience features it included such as cruise control and air conditioning, the former of which wasn't available on DX and LX models the first couple years of production and the latter of which was an option.
All-wheel drive was available across all years, and one easy way to tell if it's equipped is if it has a rear sunroof. That tilting and removable skylight was included on every all-wheel-drive model until 2009 when the feature was dropped altogether.
If you want the space and versatility of the Element, but want a sportier design and feel, Honda introduced the SC trim level in 2007. It featured a unique front fascia and headlights, stiffened and lowered suspension, 18-inch wheels and fully painted body panels. Inside it got carpeted floors, a fixed center console, "Tattoo" pattern cloth upholstery (remember, "tribal" tattoos were popular) and metallic orange accents with certain exterior colors. This model was only offered with front-wheel drive.
On the topic of body panels, for most of the Element's life it came with unpainted, dent-resistent plastic composite fenders, roof rails and lower rear tailgate. But if you don't care for that look, there's the aforementioned SC, as well as EX-P and later EX trims that painted the panels. With the Element's final refresh in 2009, the plastic panels were done away with entirely in favor of conventional painted metal fenders.
Finally, we can't talk about the Element without mentioning the Dog Friendly package introduced in 2010. It was a package that added a soft dog bed, cargo area kennel, spill-resistant water bowl, rear ventilation fan, rear seat cover, dog ramp and exterior badging. The bed and cover had a rather adorable dog-themed pattern, and the rubber floor mats had dog bone shapes molded into them.
Availability and listings
With several years of production and mass market appeal, there are plenty of Elements to choose from, and they're pretty affordable. According to Kelley Blue Book, you could pay as little as $4,000 for early models in great condition up to around $12,000 for a late model one.
Our used vehicle listings can be helpful to find a good deal near you. Narrow the offerings down by a radius around your ZIP code, and pay attention to the deal rating on each listing to see how a vehicle compares with others in a similar area.
What else to consider
The Element was a unique combination of trendy boxy design and small SUV size and capability. As such, options to consider are either more conventionally designed or smaller. The Scion xB is probably closest overall, with the first-generation models being arguably more cubic and second-generation ones featuring more size that approaches the Element. The Kia Soul and Nissan Cube also offer similar styling.
On the other hand, you have the Honda CR-V on which the Element is based, as well as the Toyota RAV4. Both of those common offerings feature all-wheel-drive as an option and similar overall size. They aren't as distinct, though.
For sheer practicality in a small package, though, you may also want to consider the Mazda5 and Kia Rondo (though that one may be tough to locate near you), both of which are minivan or minivan-esque and even offered third-row seating, all within a small footprint. They would have the practicality of the Element, though without the rugged look.
All of these vehicles should be priced similarly to Elements depending on year and condition.
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