Element adds power, carpet in new version

Friday, February 9, 2007

Buyers still can't get factory-installed leather seats inside Honda's entry-priced sport utility vehicle. But they can finally get carpeting.

Offered on a new, top model of the 2007 Honda Element, carpeting is one of several major updates to the boxy SUV whose starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $19,495.

All versions of the four-cylinder-powered Element now have 10 more horsepower than their predecessor, more standard safety equipment, new headlight and grill styling and more eye-catching gauges. There's also a first-for-Element five-speed automatic transmission, up from the previous four-speed transmission.

The changes are the most comprehensive for the Element since it debuted in calendar 2003 as a blockishly styled, versatile, four-passenger SUV with fold-back, bed-like rear seats and plastic exterior body panels here and there.

Competitors include other rather boxy people- and cargo-haulers such as the smaller Scion xB, which starts at $14,610, and the 2007 Saturn Vue SUV, which starts at $18,100.

The Elements styling has always been a like-it or hate-it issue. To some, the 5.1-foot-tall vehicle looks top-heavy and awkward. Others like the unusually blunt styling because nothing else on the road looks like it.

Look for the styling changes on the new-for-2007 Element SC model to attract more shoppers. Sitting a bit lower to the road and looking like its even lower still because of new body-colored, side sills and slightly different roof design, the SC doesn't look quite as awkward.

There are 18-inch factory wheels on the SC -- a first for any Honda -- and the SC is the only Element whose front and rear bumpers, along with the composite body panels, are the same color as the body paint. On other Elements, bumpers are black.

With a bolder grill and projector beam halogen headlights added, the top-of-the-line SC seems to make the other Elements -- with their matte, black, composite panels -- look a bit old and worn.

Inside, the SC is the only Element with carpeting. Its in the front and second-row seating areas only, where there's also new seat fabric. The rear cargo area in the Element remains with its easy-to-clean, plastic-covered floor.

Just be sure to use the tie-down hooks back there. Even suitcases and computer bags easily slide around on the Elements cargo floor which offers 25.1 cubic feet of room when seats are in use.

Despite the new look, the Element SC has the same 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder that's in all 2007 Elements. Horsepower is up from last years 156 because of the addition of high-lift camshafts and high-flow intake and exhaust systems. Torque is 161 foot-pounds, virtually the same as last year. But peak torque comes on earlier -- at 4,000 rpm, instead of 4,500.

The test Element SC with new automatic transmission and drive-by-wire throttle accelerated well in city traffic and provided comfortable get up and go. But at highway speeds and on mountainous roads, the Element could take a bit of time to regain its momentum if I let up on the accelerator and then tried to resume speed. Often when this occurred, I found other cars would dart into the opening in front of the Element. Evidently, other drivers don't care too much for following such a blockish vehicle.

I heard the Element's four cylinder about all the time, even at idle. But more noticeable was wind noise at highway speeds that had me double-checking that windows were closed tight. They were. There also was nonstop road noise from the 18-inch tires. The latter made me appreciate when I'd come upon sections of highway covered in noise-absorbing asphalt.

I liked that I sat up quite a bit to see some of the traffic ahead. Rear-seat passengers sit even higher and have great views of the dashboard, even from back there. But they must crane their heads around a metal pillar by the side windows to see out to the side.

Drivers should be careful when making turns in the Element, because the metal pillars at each side of the windshield are large and can block their views of pedestrians and even cars.

Still, there's an airy sensation in the Element for all four passengers, as the ceiling is high enough to accommodate even 6-footers wearing hats.

Remember that the Element has clamshell side doors, which means the usual metal pillar between the doors isn't stationary and moves out of the way when both front-hinged front door and rear-hinged rear door are open.

But this arrangement also can be problematic as I discovered trying to fit a grocery cart between the doors to load heavy items into the Element. There wasn't enough clearance between the Element and an adjacent car to allow for all the maneuvering of front door, cart and rear door.

Earlier Elements already had received five out of five stars in federal government frontal and side crash test ratings. But government officials also noted that in side crash testing, the head of a rear passenger dummy struck the side interior quite hard. That footnote is eliminated for the 2007 Element with the addition of standard side curtain air bags.

The Element is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, which lists its reliability as excellent.

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