The Element's drivetrain options are virtually identical to the CR-V, headed up by the excellent K24 2.4L i-VTEC DOHC 4-cylinder engine. This motor has impressive flexibility - offering bountiful torque, smooth and relatively quiet operation, and a willingness to pull strongly to the 6500 rpm redline. The transmission choices are also the same as the CR-V, with a 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic offered. Since the primary driver (my wife) has an aversion to manual transmissions, we opted for the 4-speed automatic. While I think the Element would benefit greatly from a 5th ratio in the automatic, the 4-speed performed admirably, always executing very smooth and quick shifts, and responding quickly to throttle inputs. While the motor is relatively potent, it's still being burdened with over 3400 lbs of vehicle, so maximum acceleration is merely adequate, especially if you're accustomed to cars that can accelerate to 60mph in well under 8 seconds (as I am). To be fair, the Element's acceleration is easily on par with typical SUVs and minivans, but if you're accustomed to driving hotter vehicles, the 4AT may seem a little too pokey. Under normal driving conditions, it's more than adequate and moves the Element quite effortlessly through traffic.
From a chassis perspective, things are again very similar to the CR-V. It has the same suspension configuration (MacPherson struts up front, compact double wishbones in the rear) and 4-wheel disc brakes (11.1" all around). The Element one-ups the CR-V with the added bonus of EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), though - and this is significant. EBD effectively and actively biases the braking power front to rear, resulting in better utilization of braking power from all four corners, in all conditions. Indeed, the Element's brakes in general felt more powerful and effective than the CR-V's we tested.
As with the CR-V, I was impressed by the nimble feel of the Element. Despite its tall, boxy proportions, it manages to avoid feeling tippy, and somehow seems even more stable than the CR-V. As with the CR-V, I'll even go so far to say that it was fun to drive in the twisties. Now, you're not going to be running down serious sport sedans in the canyons, but the Element's quick turn-in, unexpected lack of body roll, and fairly neutral attitude keeps things interesting. Ultimately, the modest grip of the tires is the big limiting factor in terms of sheer cornering power, but that's probably intentional (and wise) to keep a safe margin of rollover protection. The Element's maneuverability is especially endearing. It has an impressively tight turning radius, making it easy to sift through tight parking lots.
Ride comfort is quite good on most roads. Over severely broken pavement however, the short wheelbase and relatively stiff suspension conspire to induce a bit of choppiness and (sometimes) a bit of porpoising at freeway speeds. I haven't closely examined the rear suspension design of either the CR-V or the Element, but the Element's is listed as being a "compact" double wishbone, which may indicate a sacrifice of some suspension travel compared to a more conventional setup. This "compact" setup could possibly explain some of the ride degradation over challenging surfaces. Directional stability at speed could use improvement as well. The Element tends to be easily influenced by crosswinds and the airstreams of large trucks at freeway speeds. On blustery days, constant minor steering corrections may be required, leading to a bit of driver fatigue. These points detract from its suitability for long road trips. That's not to say the ride is miserable on the freeway - in good conditions it's quite comfortable cruising with traffic at 70-80mph - it's just when conditions degrade where you start to appreciate vehicles with longer legs. In this sense, the Element is much happier as a short to medium-range commuter.
Finally, in our time with the 2002 CR-V (AWD) 5MT, we noticed a bit of torque steer. Unfortunately, the Element shares this trait, though it's not as pronounced with the 4AT. The situation is entirely manageable, but it's a little out of character with past Honda efforts. This is generally considered one of the drawbacks of a front wheel drive MacPherson Strut suspension design, so that design point will serve nicely as the stooge for this particular flaw.
The Element is not marketed as an offroad vehicle, but we did some light offroading in ours. It performed surprisingly well, though I was always a little nervous about its minimum ground clearance, which is compromised by the low hanging "brush guard" for the fuel tank. We actually forded a swift moving mountain stream/river. It was a little more than hub deep and I was relieved/impressed when the Element pulled right through with no drama. The "road" on the other side of the stream was anything but improved, and again, the Element impressed with its agility.