Lifestyle

Honda's Undesirable Element


Elementsc_2007
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Element SC turns Honda's boxy trucklet into a rolling cartoon character—unfortunately, it's more of an evil twin than a hero

Up Front

Honda may be the first auto manufacturer in history to take a page from the comic book writer's playbook to boost flagging interest in one of its models. The pulp tactic—see the "evil twin" in television soap operas—consists of introducing an anti-hero, compelling thanks to powers and virtues antithetical to the good guy.

That's Honda's (HMC) plan for its littlest crossover SUV, the Element. According to Automotive News, last year's sales of the truck were down 7.9% to 51,829. To revive interest, the company is introducing the SC edition for 2007, an edgy urban take on the boxy trucklet. The SC sports street styling by way of painted bumpers, projector-beam headlights, sport-tuned suspension, 18-in. wheels, upgraded cloth interior, and, of course, a lowered ride height.

The Element, for refreshers, is the automotive equivalent of a cardboard box on wheels. A lack of b-pillars, rear doors hinged on the trailing edge, and a rugged interior create the ultra-practical SUV surfers and backpackers dream of at night. The boxy-but-good concept, which also less explicitly animates models like the Scion xB from Toyota (TM) and General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet HHR, won the model positive press early on, including a nomination for the North American Truck of the Year in 2003.

The upgraded SC starts at $22,695, nearly four grand more than a basic Element, which goes for $18,900. But true to Honda's all-included reputation, that price includes a healthy set of equipment on top of the SC trim line's many upgrades. With $595 destination charge, my test ride stickered at $23,290.

Behind the Wheel

The SC comes equipped with Honda's 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine. Its 166 horses won't impress any aftermarket tuners, but prove plenty to push this bread box around.

Though Honda says it tuned the SC's suspension for sport, this is still the boxy ute it always was. Braking performance was good, and acceleration healthy if not very impressive. And, in snow and ice, even the two-wheel-drive model stuck to the ground admirably.

Styling is largely personal, but the SC manages to faithfully maintain the most compellingly street aspects of the concept vehicle it's based on. The lowered stance takes away profitably from the normal Element's cube-on-wheels look. But it's hard to imagine there'll be much crossover between Element buyers and SC buyers. The design is unabashedly polarizing.

Whether in the SC trim or not, the Element's virtues remain largely the same, namely a roomy interior, especially in the back. It's a shame that the rear seats only make way for two rather than three since there's enough room. But, instead, the seats can be folded up to make maximum cargo room. The bi-level hatch is handy, allowing you to gain quick access to the trunk by opening just the top portion or, more thoroughly, by opening both components. This makes loading bikes and other equipment particularly easy.

The alter-ego theme continues inside the cabin. Interior controls, as well as the steering wheel, have been retouched with orange trim. The whole package has a very comic-book sensibility, which seems as if it might limit its appeal. Then again, it is a look rarely found outside of vehicles that have been heavily customized. The styling goes beyond the options available in many Scion models, the brand Toyota launched specifically to go after that market.

Playing to the street stereotype, another prominent SC upgrade is in the dash. The stereo is equipped with seven speakers, a decent subwoofer, XM satellite radio, and an auxiliary input jack. Though it probably won't compare with some of the aftermarket monsters lurking in the dark, the sound system's 270 watts produce a nice amount of thump and grind when blasted outright.

There's a good deal of SC-specific detailing inside as well. A few of the cabin elements are configured slightly differently, like the center-console cup holders. The seats have a barbed-wire-like design on them that's intended to be reminiscent of certain tattoo patterns. Only problem is, Honda's about 10 years behind the times.

Buy It or Bag It?

The Element scores very well on government crash-test ratings, five stars in both categories. The truck comes with side-curtain and front-side air bags standard. That's no surprise. Under all the styling, this is still a Honda.

But fuel economy is slightly disappointing given the ultra-efficient four-cylinder underhood. Other small SUVs, even Honda's own CR-V, earn upwards of 30 mpg. But, with aerodynamics only slightly better than a concrete slab, fuel economy dips to the mid-20s in the Element.

The value of the Element SC, personally, escapes me. The whole concept and execution seem, well, a little silly. The interplay between the two versions of the model in Honda's marketing is entertaining, however, and could draw intrigued showroom traffic. But the concept of a dealer-made, "customized" urban vehicle with "street cred" seems limited at best.

Click here to see a slide show featuring the 2007 Honda Element SC

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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