When the Element debuted as a 2003 model, Honda marketed it to active younger drivers with images of surfboards, camping gear and sports equipment. But it has become popular with baby boomers and families. And many of these families have a dog or two. So, why not a pet-edition Element? Now there's a marketing hook.
Appearance: Peter always has thought this SUV looked vaguely militaristic, like some holdover from the Soviet bloc. Still, its slightly rounded roof keeps it from looking as square as some of its newer, hipper competition, like the Nissan Cube, the Kia Soul and the Scion XB. The exterior differs from the regular Element only in the addition of the paw-print emblems. And, thankfully, the latest Element has shed a lot of plastic body cladding carried in previous generations. But it's still two-toned with black bumpers and some minor composite trim. The side cargo doors swing wide, but you'll have to open the front doors to open the rear ones, which can be annoying if you have kids constantly climbing in and out.
Performance: The Element has Honda's workhorse 2.4-liter iVTEC 4-cylinder, which is enough to get the job done in city driving. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and the four-wheel drive and vehicle stability help minimize any top-heavy feel when turning. Still, the ride is about what you'd expect — neither jarring (which is good for pooch passengers) nor overly comfortable.
Interior: The Element was conceived as a true utility vehicle, with washable floors and wide-opening "clamshell" doors. With this option package, Honda adds to its utilitarian nature. The heavy rubber floor mats are stamped with dog bones. Look closer, and you'll notice dog prints on the washable seat covers. But the real treats are in the rear, where there is a zippable travel kennel with bed, spill-resistant water bowl and an electric fan that plugs into the 12V outlet. There's even a tote bag with a leash and collar. And stowed under the kennel is an extendable ramp. We enlisted the help of colleague Ellen (also a longtime Element owner) and her oh-so-agreeable pooch, Tucher, as guest testers. Tucher simply ignored the ramp and jumped into the back, leading us to think it might be best for smaller or infirm dogs. And while Tucher was kind of a snug fit — the kennel seems sized for small-to-medium dogs, he liked the bed so much he didn't want to leave after our ride. And, yes, the spill-proof dog dish works.
Our 3 favorites
Headroom: There's lots of it for taller drivers.
Dog-friendly: Savvy idea, Honda. When will we see a Cesar Millan tie-in?
Theater seating: The rear bench is raised to give passengers a better view.
Cooler: Great idea for long drives, easy to remove and clean.
64: Number of possible seating configurations: tilt, recline, fold, remove. Your choice.
Ride: Smooth, comfortable and reliable, but nothing fancy.
The bottom line: The Element definitely puts the utility in SUV. (But even with all-wheel drive, this isn't an off-roader.) Ellen reports that when she next took Tucher in her own Element, he went to the back, expecting his comfy kennel.