Test Drive: Honda Element

San Francisco ? It had been three years since we?d driven the quirky-looking Honda Element, so we decided to borrow one while in the Bay area visiting family for the holidays.

Introduced initially in 2003, the Honda Element was one of the first of the distinctive boxy looking wagons, which include the Scion xB, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube.? Of the group, the Element is the largest, heaviest, most powerful and most expensive.? A couple of other features that set the Element apart from the competition is it is available with all-wheel drive and has the ability to tow a small trailer (up to 1,500 pounds).

A 166-hp, 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine powers all models of the Element, through either a five-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission, which is only available with certain configurations of the EX and SC models.

The Element is built on many off the shelf components used for its sibling, the CR-V compact SUV.? True to the Honda reputation for building well-balanced and good handling vehicles, the somewhat bulky looking Element is actually very agile and offers a spirited driving experience with little body roll.? Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution and stability control make the Element easy to control with confidence.? We appreciated the tight, 35-foot turning radius in parking lots.

The Element seating includes two front bucket seats in the front and a two-person bench in the rear.? We like the abundant storage compartments in the doors, dash and in the cargo areas.? Access to the rear seating is through smaller rear-opening doors like the ones on pickup trucks.? The doors can only be opened when the front doors are opened, making access the rear split bench seat a little more difficult. ?The rear seats are also on a higher-level floor, which provides better visibility for rear seat occupants, but makes getting in and out a little harder.

Element comes in three trim levels: LX, EX and SC, which we drove.? Pricing starts at $21,235, including the destinations charge, for the two-wheel drive LX with automatic transmission and peaks at $26,730 for the SC with navigation.? Four-wheel drive adds $1,250 to either the LX or EX models, but is not available on the sportier SC.

Distinguishing features on the SC include cleaner looking body-colored bumpers, sills and roof moldings and 18-inch alloy wheels.? Inside the SC has a center console instead of a walk-through area and the backlit gauges have a cooper color light.

The Honda Element went to the dogs a few months ago, when they added a new ?Dog Friendly? package for dog owners.? The package includes a rear kennel, kennel organizer, bed, stowable ramps and dog-pattern seat covers.? There are also ?dog-bone? all-season floor mats, spill-resistant water bowl and electric fan.? The package is completed with a tote bag, leash and collar, dog tag and bag dispenser.

Honda supplies one of the best built-in navigation systems in the business. The smaller unit they use in the Element, was not as easy to use as models in larger cars, but it?s still better than most.

We enjoyed the versatility of the Element, and our growing grandchildren liked the spacious seating area, except Barbara spent more time in the back seat because our 11-year old grandson is always quickest to call ?shotgun.?

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