I'm not trying to offend anyone here, but I hate the Element. Yuck! Seriously I hate them! Before you flame me let me explain the situation (sorry for the novel):
My Fiancée and I live in Colorado. We are looking for a replacement for a 2dr Honda Civic. We both race mountain bikes, I hang glide competitively, and we have 4 medium-large sized dogs. We travel regularly on road trips throughout the Rockies, Utah, Moab, and the West for races, hang gliding comps, and adventure. We are on the road at least twice a month, usually more in the summer. Our current vehicles are a 1st Gen Toyota Tacoma with a Convertible Canvas Topper, a BMW (Z3) M Coupe, and a 2000 Honda Civic.
The Tacoma is our main lifestyle vehicle. I actually lived in it a couple summers ago and was perfectly comfortable. I need to do some aggressive four wheeling to get to most of the hang gliding sites out here (they say the most dangerous part is the drive up to launch!) and the Tacoma does this without problems. We can sleep in the back, but it's tight with the narrow wheel wells. With the rack system I built it hauls all of our gear no prob. It's also the primary dog vehicle (they ride in the bed with canvas sides rolled up and military spec netting to keep them in). It's got 215,000 miles and is still going strong, but showing signs of its mileage. I need to make it last 3 more years at least.
The BMW M Coupe is the garage queen. I track it a few times a year and the occasional speed fix in the mountains. It has a bike rack and is super fun to drive to races, but is obviously limited in what it can haul. The only reason I mention the M Coupe is that I have a taste for the driving experience, it's part of the reason I hate the Element. I'll expand more later.
The Honda Civic is what the Element would be replacing. It is the commuter car, but it does most of its duty serving my Fiancée. She needs to haul the dogs occasionally and the back seat is disgusting from years of dog hair, dirt, spittle, funk, etc. Considering this we don't own a vehicle with a real back seat, which is really annoying when friend and family come to stay.
Instead of an Element, I want to replace the Civic with a BMW 3 Series AWD wagon, the 325ixT (this why I mentioned the M Coupe). Outbacks, Foresters, Rav 4's, FJ's, Volvos would all do the same job, but I have no interest in any of those. If cost and reliability were no issue I'd get a Syncro Westy, but they are so the Element and the 325ixT are what I've narrowed the search to. This is all moot as my Fiancée will have the ultimate say, as it will be her vehicle, but I digress. We have about $10-12K to spend and from what I've searched the AWD Element and 325ixT are pretty even in this price point yielding vehicles with between 60,000 to 100,000 miles, the BMW being a few years earlier. I do all the work on our vehicles and am comfortable doing complex jobs on both BMW's and Honda's. So far our Honda has been the easiest to work on, with the most well thought out dealer service manual.
One last thing. My friend has an 03 AWD Ex Element. I've done multiple road trips to races and adventures in his Element and driven it on many occasions. I actually dig the funky, boxy exterior and cool interior styling of the Element. It's the driving experience I can't stand. Driving his Element is boring, sterile, and numb. I don't even like riding in it. It's 10 hours round trip to Moab from Boulder and we go a half dozen times a year. With all that time behind the wheel, the driving experience matters to me. Even compared to the Tacoma the Element sucks. The Tacoma walks away from it up the passes, out handles it even with hang gliders on top, can out four-wheel it, hauls more gear, and only gets about 5mpg less. Compared to the 325ixT the Element is well all I can say is - Yuck! We borrow a friend's Vanagan Westfalia camper regularly and even though it is gutless and boxy, the driving experience is still enjoyable. I enjoyed it as much as I do the BMW. I dig the VW Bus feel, it takes a little talent to negotiate windy mountain passes in, and the poptop and camper are worth topping out at 35mph at times.
Okay I'll stop hating now. Enter the dogs! They completely change the equation. The 325ixT is really just a sedan with a hatch. It is tiny compared to other wagons. I doubt I could fit one, much less two dogs in the back comfortably, meaning the seats would have to be folded down. This isn't a problem because BMW makes an integrated retractable screen that connects behind the front 2 seats. I could also cover the hatch and back of the rear seats with waterproof carpet cheaply, but the Element with its retractable rear seats, tailgate, and washable rubber floors wins hands down.
The next issue is payload. Besides the driving experience I'm concerned about the limited payload and space in the Element with the backseats down. We would have to get a rocket box and hitch rack to haul 3, much less 4 people, and gear. I've spent a few hours crammed between gear bags on the floor of my friend's Element because there wasn't enough room with the back seats down. I'm sure going over the passes with 4 people in a loaded down Element will only sour me more on the driving experience.
To wrap things up. The 325ixT can do everything the Element can do, but better, except haul the dogs. It has more HP / torque, gets better Hwy mpg, nicer options, better AWD, 50/50 weight distribution, etc. One of my reservations is that we already have a truck. Is the Element too redundant? The only real advantage to the Element is easy dog hauling and less time fixing it on my days off. Honda's reliability is off the chart compared to the BMW.
I know the responsible, rational, boring thing to do is to get the Element, but I just don't want to. I'm sure I'll learn to love the Element. Everyone I know who has one loves it! I dig the orange one the most as it reminds me of my old VW Bus. If I could find one with the Ursa Minor Pop Top that would really be cool. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Put me over the top, please!