Tri car evaluation: Honda Element

There are few things I like less than going into car dealerships. Guys in ill fitting suits putting out false gregariousness for a sale. The huge mystery area of the many ways to get screwed in your purchase. Knowing that there’s always a hidden cost somewhere that affects the bottom line. The list goes on. I love getting a new car and being on a two year lease cycle means I get the thrill of a new car frequently alongside its ugly cousin, the horror of car dealerships every two years as well. I used a car broker to buy my wife’s car and got to test drive cars on lots with no intention of buying. While that makes me a crappy customer, it’s also my sweet revenge for what I’m sure is cruel behavior on their part somewhere along the road. But my search for a new car goes on, salesmen or naught, and the car I have been compelled to test drive is the Honda Element, widely considered the best suited car for triathlon.

My fear was that the Element was going to be like a pair of orthopedic shoes or husky pants: just because it fits doesn’t preclude it from looking like shit.

The Element and the Scion B series both look like Imperial Storm Trooper helmets. You can even get the Scion B in white, which doesn’t help matters. The Element’s ruse is that it was designed by a couple of engineer surfers who wanted to be able to fit longboards into their car, carry some friends, and hose down the interior to clean it out. The criteria could also be the same for a serial killer. Cavernous interior you can hose down, high tinted windows protecting the inside from prying eyes, and an unassuming, quiet exterior that doesn’t draw attention from the neighbors. With suicide doors on either side the whole car can open up wide enough to shoot a rocket through it.

But the real appeal for the triathlete is the cargo space – fold up the rear seats and while you lose your rear side visibility completely you can fit several bikes and tri gear into the thing without having to shove or cram things around. The rear hatch is split top and bottom providing a perfect changing seat for a wetsuit transition, too. 

YOu can even fold down ALL the seats flat and live in the damn thing:

There’s a lot of clear benefit to this vehicle. But I needed to see one and drive one to find out the rest.

I swung by the dealership and was instantly greeted by Rudy, who loved my Rudy Project sunglasses. A nice guy, not slimy at all, and had good answers to my questions. There wasn’t an engine difference between the EX and the SC models, it’s just a trim package. Since I don’t care about trim (of the car variety), and the SC model came with leather and carpet that couldn’t be hosed down, the EX was my clear choice. Color me surprised that the Element has a 170hp VTEC engine. I’ve complained about the redline habit of the VTEC, but I was open to how it performed in this box. My concerns going in were as follows:

1) Honda’s fit and finish blows. They skimp on layout and design features, and their control system is crappy.
2) The air system in my wife’s Honda Fit is terrible. The a/c doesn’t reach the rear. It’s not cold or strong enough.
3) I hate captains chair seating. I had a PT Cruiser forced on me for a trip and I pulled my achilles tendon from the foot position. The Element was right on the edge of captains chair seating.
4) Did I mention that Hondas make me feel like I’m driving a lawnmower?

Rudy pulled out the Element and I took the wheel.

The first thing I noticed was the massive A-pillar blind spots on either side of the windshield. These things are like Babe the blue ox’s legs on either side and having just been hit by a Jeep because of those blind spots I was rather alarmed. Rudy turned the a/c on full blast and then dropped his window. Hard to test the a/c in November in LA with the window down, but whatever. I took it out on the road.

It had more pickup than I expected. More, actually, than the MINI Clubman regular. No shock there – the MINI is 117 horsepower, but a fraction of the weight. The Element handled fine and was comfortable enough of a ride for city driving. When I punched the accelerator it moved, but it was hard to tell how well it would perform at higher speeds on the freeway. Testing it at 4pm in rush hour was not going to tell me that at all.

With the rear seats flipped up the lack of visibility in such a large car is alarming. You lose half the car’s side windows with the seats up and they cannot be removed without unbolting them completely. This is definitely a hazard, but with tinted windows you’ll never know if the Element next to you can see you or not. Assume they can’t.

My leg didn’t cramp up from the seat position and the seats were more comfy than I expected. Lots of cup holders, outlets, an iPod jack, and a good stereo. All told it was better than a lawnmower.

And yet it still felt like orthopedic shoes. I don’t love this car. It’s perfect for triathlon. I mean perfect. You could not build a better car for a portable transition area, capable of storing several bikes without having to remove the wheels. I would bet that you could put in three bikes, some luggage, three people’s full tri kits, and three passengers. Flip down the rear hatch and you have a seating area for changing and a flip up door to hang your wetsuit off of.

But you still have to drive the thing. Or at least, I’ll have to drive it. At almost $10,000 less than the MINI Clubman it’s hard to deny the practicality on the physical and financial level. But it will take a complete removal of the “love” factor out of the car buying experience. I suppose I could grow to love it, but men who say that cheat. It would not be long until I was licking the racing bonnets of strange MINI Clubmans.

And so I continue to search. I have another few weeks to make my decision and I’ll see what my other options are. There is one more stop to be made: Audi. I may be able to roll from one lease right into another without any money down. Since I am considering the MINI Clubman with roof rails, an A3 could be just as good, and even less expensive with no down payment.

I could drive a wagon. A German wagon. In red. That matches my bike. Hmmmmmmm.

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