2010 Honda Element with Dog Friendly Package - Click above for high-res image gallery

How does an automaker take a model that's been largely unchanged since inception and give it a little juice seven years into its life cycle? If you're Honda, you go to the dogs. Literally. After unveiling it as a "concept" at the 2009 New York Auto Show, the Dog Friendly Honda Element accessory package has made the transition to production. The theory is that if you're a dog lover, you might consider buying an Element geared specifically toward those needs.

The Big H has plenty of experience in this department. As we showed you earlier today, in Japan there's a dedicated Honda Dog website (it's incredible, really) loaded with info about transporting pups in basically every JDM Honda offering. Naturally, there are "Travel Dog" accessories that drivers can purchase for each car as well. In fact, in Japan, there's also a dedicated model, the Vamos Travel Dog, which is specifically outfitted with dog owners in mind – much like the Stateside-market Elements kitted out with the new Dog Friendly gear. As luck would have it, I have two dogs. Hence, I, and they, will be your humble 2010 Honda Element (Dog Friendly!) evaluators. Get your paws over to the jump to read more.

Photos by Alex Núñez / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

First, a brief backgrounder on our guest reviewers, who mean a great deal to me.

Pepper is a 10-year old Sheltie that I bought at a pet store after my first Sheltie, Krypto, passed away all too early due to kidney problems. God love him. I know that pet stores are mostly evil, but Pepper isn't and I figured she deserved a good home as much as any other pooch. Pepper's favorite things are marrow-bone treats, snow (or dirt – the two appear to be interchangeable) and licking people she likes with OCD-like fervor.

Millie is a seven-year-old Border Collie mix I found as a puppy roaming the streets of Bridgeport, CT's North End. She was all skin and bones; shoulders and ribs jutting out. Concerned, I took her home where she promptly buried her face in a plate of dog food as I assured my wife that we'd find her a good place to live. What my wife didn't know was that she'd be living with us.

Millie's favorite things include making me spend thousands of dollars to fence in my yard, stealing food from anyone dumb enough to leave it within her reach (remarkably, she accomplishes this in feline-like silence, despite the cacophony that seemingly follows her in any other situation) and shedding hair on my couch as if it were an Olympic sport.

The only times my dogs generally go in the car is for trips to the vet (Millie's diabetic, so she goes on a fairly regular basis to get her sugar checked) or to the groomer (a place I should take them more frequently). So while I had it, the Element was used for both purposes.

Honda's $995 Dog Friendly package consists of the following:
  • A custom-fitted, soft-sided crate with a built-in, spill-resistant water bowl
  • An electric cooling fan mounted in the cargo bay
  • A portable ramp to give dogs access to the crate
  • Dog-patterned rear seat covers
  • Dog bone-patterned heavy-duty floormats
  • A swag bag with accessories like a collar, leash, poop-bag dispenser and ID tag
  • Prerequisite exterior vehicle badges for the tailgate and front fenders declaring you a dog lover

Our Honda Element pooch-pack tester was a loaded, all-wheel-drive EX with navigation ($27,270 MSRP including the dog package). The centerpiece of the kit is a crate secured to the Element's cargo bay via straps that loop right into the standard floor-mounted tie-downs. Once it's in there, know that you have zero storage behind the second row seats; the crate eats up all the usable space. Installation is rock-solid, though, and the top and sides of the crate are a breathable mesh material that the dogs can see through. Not that they'll be seeing too much – the clamshell-style tailgate obstructs their view backwards and the side windows are too high for them to really see out of. Since the roof of the crate is mesh, light still gets in and they can see the sky. Frankly, I was okay with all this, because my dogs' general reaction to seeing any living thing out the windows is to bark loudly and incessantly, as if they have just spotted flying saucers unloading giant cat warriors in a mass invasion. That gets old in a hurry. In the Element, Millie and Pepper basically sat quietly once zipped into the crate. However, if your dogs get motion sickness or really like to look out at the passing world, this is likely a less-than-ideal setup.

Based on my observations, they were very comfortable back there. The crate's pad is nice and soft (way softer than the beach towel I usually lay out), and, like the matching seat covers for the back seats, it's covered in an easy-to-wipe fabric. A small, spill-resistant bowl is mounted right in the crate, tucked into a cutout at the rear of the pad. It's a nice, ingenious idea in theory, but after seeing how much fur was accumulating in the crate, I had to wonder whether hair in the water bowl would become a serious issue over time. The cooling fan for the dogs is mounted at the very rear corner of the cargo bay on the passenger side and flicks on via a toggle switch. You need to reach your hand between the crate edge and the D-pillar to get there, which is a little sub-optimal, but it works just as advertised. You've heard the horror stories about dogs being left in hot cars before, so this is a good feature to have with a clean and well-integrated installation.

While my dogs liked the crate once they were in there – getting them in there was a different story. The Dog Friendly package includes an extendable, non-skid ramp that's meant to let dogs easily walk into and out of their crate. In theory, this is fantastic, as it means you needn't lift heavier, smaller and/or older dogs into the car. It isn't that simple in reality, especially if your dog isn't trained to walk on ramps. I say this with great confidence, because our particular Element Dog tester's ramp has the nail scratches left in protestation as I "helped" the girls walk up. They genuinely hated it. Now, Millie has cataracts because of her diabetes, so I doubt that helped her confidence anyway. Pepper is healthy as a horse, however, and she gave me sad-eyed, flat-eared looks after the ramp trauma. If your dog is young and trainable or does agility training and that kind of stuff, it'll probably be no big deal. Mine were stubborn mules about it. As such, I lifted them onto the lower tailgate after the initial attempt and let them step into the crate from there. Also, be advised: The plastic surface on the tailgate is not non-skid, so you should take care to make sure your dog doesn't slip and fall if you need to take that course of action. Once the dogs are in, the ramp slides down to half-size and stows neatly under the crate.

If you have one large dog, he or she should fit fine. In my case, both my dogs (medium and medium-large) rode together in comfort, curled up together on their trip to the groomer. If you have small breeds, you can easily fit a few of the little buggers in there. Should you choose to have your dog ride in the main passenger compartment instead, the back seat has a dedicated cover for this specific purpose. Combined with the easy-to-clean rubberized floor and included full-vehicle-width mats, the Element is a great dog car (or kid car, for that matter). Hell, it's well-suited to canine duty even without the special package, though having that crate adds a large degree of safety for all occupants, dog and human alike.

What of the Element itself? I wound up liking it a lot. It's not without quirks, though. Despite it being decidedly utilitarian (square form factor, big cargo space, low-maintenance interior surfaces, etc.), it's surprisingly impractical in some situations. If you need to load children into the back seats you'll want to pull it out of the garage first. Why? You can't open the rear half-doors without first opening the front doors. And since they swing in opposite directions, well – visualize the logistical challenges of doing all this in a confined space. You will utter blasphemous things. In front of your kids. In the open, however, the B-pillarless door openings turn into beautiful, minivan-like gaping maws.

Up front, everything's clean and simple. The driver's seating position is high and comfortable, and forward visibility is excellent, thanks to the expansive, upright windshield. The view straight back is typically lousy, as it is in many crossovers and SUVs – the rear window line starts very high up, so people walking behind you may be obscured. Thankfully, the tester's nav system included a rearview camera, which negated that shortcoming in parking lots.

The 2.4-liter inline-four is good for 166 horses at 5,800 rpm and 161 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm – enough to give the Element plenty of spunk off the line and great around-town usable power. We had no complaints in this regard or with the tester's five-speed automatic. Steering is excellent, and the Element's purposeful stance translates to nice road feel. I figured it might feel tippy in the corners, but the opposite was true. It's great to drive, frankly – more involving and rewarding than, say, the softer-feeling (though substantially less costly) Nissan Cube.

The Element's nav/audio system is, blessedly, the same touchscreen unit you can get in the Civic, meaning it's generally intuitive to use. One thing that makes no sense, however, is that Bluetooth connectivity is not available at all. That's particularly vexing considering the Element's nav system takes voice commands, so the in-car mic and steering wheel controls are already there. The three-dial climate control interface is baby simple, and the center console storage bin that you can remove like a mini cooler/lunch pail is a neat touch. As for roominess, it just wins. No one's going to moan about head or legroom, either in front or in back.

Ultimately, the Dog Friendly Honda Element is a nifty all-around package. Sure, it's a little gimmicky; you can shop around for third-party pet automotive accessories and likely get the stuff you want/need for less than the $995 Honda charges. You won't get that perfect OEM fit-and-finish though, and that's part of the Dog Friendly package's inherent appeal. I liked it. Pepper and Millie liked it (well, except for the ramp). And as a bonus, it's hardly a penalty box to drive. In fact, this veteran may just be the best box on wheels out there.

Photos by Alex Núñez / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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