Test Vehicle: Honda Element
Concept: Dude, here’s your car! Like the risible Pontiac Aztek, the Element is a boxy van built on an an existing mass-market car chassis, with “cool” styling and available four-wheel drive designed to appeal to the Youthful Buyers of Today! Unlike the Aztek, the Element really is cool looking, in an industrial, vaguely PC, Tonka People’s Transport sort of way. (“Is it a hybrid?” was what gawkers often asked. It’s not.) Also unlike the Pontiac, the car on which the Honda’s based–the Civic–is one you would actually want to buy. At around $20,000 the Element offers lots of reliable cubic feet of carrying capacity per dollar.
Aesthetics: The hose-it-out, “Gen Y Staff Car” look retains its appeal even after you’ve realized it’s largely fake. As with the Chrysler PT Cruiser, most of what you initially think is sturdy metal–e.g., the shiny front bumper bar–turns out to be plastic. But it’s high-quality, Honda plastic. (Such high quality that I unpatriotically assumed the Element was made in Japan, not in an American “transplant” factory. In fact, it’s built in Ohio.) The Honda’s radiator is visible from the front–a nice, elemental effect. The interior (strong shapes of blue and grey on the Gearbox test vehicle) cheers you up without being gimmicky.
Essential contradiction: The car looks like a rugged Panzer for Pavement-lovers. But it drives like a loaded-down Civic.
It should be called: The Honda Elephant. Slow, carries a lot, and will last a long time.
Slice of drive: Like an SUV, the Element is tall. Unlike on an SUV, the load floor is very near the road. Result: a huge, room-like interior space. The vast windshield is way up there in the front–watching the road ahead is like looking at a movie. Acceleration can tactfully be described as gradual. The brakes are excellent, but there’s the traditional front-wheel-drive mush up front when you rotate the wheel. (The 4WD version might be better.) … The Element doesn’t make you feel fast, or agile, or tough. It makes you feel efficient. You’re not a driver; you’re a movement technician! I think this is what the people who drive the D.C. Metro trains must experience: the smoothly increasing momentum accompanied by a steady hum. The square, long, solid container moving gracefully through space. Watch the closing doors! As on the Metro line, the hard seats hurt my back. … This would be a good vehicle to drive across the country, if you were accompanied by a bunch of entertaining friends and a vast array of salty snacks. The car itself certainly isn’t going to be the star.
Great virtue: Volume! Much of it is in front of the driver, and therefore useless, but the impression is of a vast cavity easily accessed through the side “suicide” doors. The rear seat is set way back–as in the forthcoming Chevy Malibu Maxx–which means an almost unusably large, Checker-Cab quantity of legroom. A man could blog from in there! The seats do-si-do into some kind of bed–I didn’t try that, but they moved easily out of the way when I did decide to haul my unwieldy 7-foot dining table out from storage. The table just barely fit inside–see photo–but that’s more than I could say for almost any other $20,000 enclosed vehicle I could name.
Performance: Corners well for a room! With its high center of gravity, the Element tips but holds on stably. The yawing will scare you into slowing down well before it starts to slide. As the conductor … I mean, driver, you sit up high–as high as in a typical SUV–which seems to be enough to trigger the Darwinian intimidation gene. Other drivers get out of your way. Soon I was unconsciously flinging around this Biosphere 3 with obnoxious disregard for the rights of others. … Predictably, the tall, slabby Element gets blown about by side winds. On a gusty freeway it was no fun at all.
Essential irony: I’d love to see the corporate charts comparing the Element’s demographic target with a profile of the car’s actual buyers. I bet Honda missed its target by a mile. The idea was supposedly to appeal to 20-year-olds, yet everybody I’ve seen driving this Bradley Shopping Vehicle (and there are already two on my block) has been a satisfied-looking, flea-market-ready middle-aged boomer. Not that there’s anything wrong with it! … Still, I’m somewhat mystified by all the youth-targeted cars now coming on market. (Click here for Toyota’s equally cubic Scion xB.) Who decided that Gen-Y-ers wanted to bop around in boxes? Don’t they like to drive like everyone else their age in the past? Don’t they have the same genes as their parents? Do they not like sex either? (Well, OK. They get those rear seats. Still.)
What the Element needs: More guts. Raise the price $5,000 and use the money to stick in a bigger engine and bigger tires. There’s plenty of empty space left under that windshield for a V-6. If my theory is right, and it’s boomers who are buying the Element, they can afford the extra few grand. Rear-wheel drive would be better still. Barring that, a bit more noise–rumbling, mechanical, military-industrial noise!--would help, even if it didn’t mean the thing went a whit faster. Right now, the Element is too polite; it needs to drive as rugged as it looks. In comparison, the PT Cruiser is hideous, and not much faster, but it drives (and sounds) the way a car that looks like it looks should drive.
Patented Gearbox Parking Lot Test: (On a scale of 1-10, how happy was I to step out into the parking lot and realize the keys in my hand were for this car?) 6. That’s better than a Lincoln LS (5). Worse than a Cadillac CTS (7). Worse still than my own $10,000 used Nissan 300ZX (8). But not bad. (I’d give the PT Cruiser a 6 too.)
Conclusion: The longer you live with the Element, the more its Honda-esque virtues–reliability, stability, fit and finish, efficiency–grow on you. It’s what I think I’d be like as a husband! And it’s great-looking. But …[You really want to finish this thought?–ed. No.]
Update:Business Week reports that the Element’s “typical buyer turned out to be 41 years old.” Hah! Not exactly Gen Y. Or even Gen X. … [Thanks to alert reader J.G.] … There’s more on Honda’s demographic miss here. [Thanks to S.R.] …
[Correction: The initial version of this review erroneously reported that the Element is assembled in Japan. It’s made in Honda’s East Liberty, Ohio factory. Thanks to reader J.P.H.] 12:41 A.M.
Tuesday, June 3, 2003
AnthropomorPhantom … Here’s an exercise: Go to the Facial Beauty Experiment page. Click on the arrows to morph the face to maximum masculinity. There. Doesn’t he look like the new Rolls Royce! It’s those huge, wide-spaced, architect-straight brows. … 9:03 P.M.
New Jersey mayor indicted. Artist sleeps with model. Italian government falls: Land Rover is having quality problems. This is the most shocking information since the news that Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots is entering rehab. … Update: Dave Leggett has more on the chronic Land Rover quality problems on his excellent auto business blog. … 7:21 P.M.
Embattled BMW design chief Chris Bangle reacts gracefully under pressure,saying (of the imposing but gratuitously weird 7 series luxury sedan):
Only people who … say ‘I’ve got to not like something,’ have a problem with it.
In Newsweek a few months ago, Bangle responded to Keith Naughton’s criticism of the car’s controversial I-Drive control with:
“I don’t mean to be arrogant about it, but what does a journalist know?”
P.S.: He also accused his enemies of spreading “disinformation” and of wanting “to use journalism as a political tool,” boasting, “The fourth quarter belongs to us!” … Oh, wait. That was embattled NYT editor Howell Raines, not Bangle. I’m getting my vendettas crossed. ..[Emphasis added. Thanks to reader L.H.] 3:17 P.M.
Thursday, May 29, 2003
Get your Audis now, before they switch to the obnoxious new corporate “shield” grille, seen here on the Nuvolari concept vehicle. The grille “harks back to Nuvolari’s Auto Union racing cars,” according to Automobile magazine. … I suppose it’s less obnoxious than some of the other symbols evocative of Auto Union cars of that era (the 1930s). … 2:14 A.M.
Friday, May 9, 2003
Jagt Mickey Kaus endlich zum Teufel! The Stop Chris Bangle petition now has 4,977 signatures … The Stop Mickey Kaus petiton has … er … one signature. … Eine! … Ha, ha, ha. … Ha, ha, ha, ha! … [Maybe nobody knew it was there-ed Hey, I’m gloating here, all right? Don’t look now but it’s up to 30 signatures. At this rate you’ll pass Bangle before Christmas-ed. Not after the 5 Series comes out. 31-ed] 3:20 A.M.
Rear-drive trend gathers momentum! Now, here’s a significant car: The Chrysler 300C. Why? Because it represents another laudable attempt by DaimlerChrysler to bring a Mercedes feel to Detroit? Sure. But mainly because it marks the return of the big, rear-wheel drive American sedan. In this, Chrysler appears to have stolen a march on GM and Ford, both of which still seem committed to the aesthetically inferior but more efficient front-drive format. (Click here for why front-drive is inferior.) … What about the 300C’s styling? It’s pompous … but in a good way! I love it. … While the gifted J Mays has seemingly been wasting his (and Ford’s) time with retrofuturistic nostalgia exercises, Chrysler may be on the verge of building a car people will one day be nostalgic about. … 2:48 A.M.
Angry appliance, unplugged: GM’s Pontiac Aztek, long considered the most pathetic vehicle for sale in the U.S. market, will go out of production in December of next year. … It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the Aztek so instantly ludicrous. Probably the awkwardly empty and square front wheel wells, and the gratuitous, fierce animalistic snout, which may have been what prompted incoming GM executive Bob Lutz to famously say that many of the company’s products looked like “angry kitchen appliances.” Plus the sheer, grandiosely lame corporate delusion of thinking that this tippy box with cheap zoomy cladding would somehow become the hip, cool plaything of America’s youth. … I still claim that if the Aztek had been a great or even good car it would have soon been considered lovably homely. But it wasn’t (though reliability actually isn’t bad, according to Consumer Reports). … 2:45 A.M.
What’s worse than BMW design chief Chris Bangle’s force-fed Gaudi-esque eccentricities? Answer: BMW models in which the painful struggle to mute and pasteurize Bangle’s force-fed eccentricities is all too obvious. … The latest tortured half-Bangle is the crucial 5 Series sedan, shown here (click on the picture to enlarge). … The Kia Rio influence is apparent, especially in the rear three-quarter view–what a mess!--though I think I see a bit of homage to Hyundai in there as well. … BMW sales fell 7.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. That must be because Bangle’s new designs are the “greatest breakthroughs in visual art since Michelangelo,” or whatever it is he says about them! … BMW blames the effect of model changeovers, with several models (such as the 5 Series) about to be replaced. … 2:30 A.M.