1.09.2011

A Sad Reminder That Everything Changes....

Future Driver Ben stands in front of the Silver Element and helps me evaluate the Bokeh of the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE lens.  Excruciatingly low light.

I know you’re not supposed to fall in love with inanimate objects and it’s not that I really “love” my car in the sense that I’d marry it, but, it is the best car I’ve ever had when it comes to facilitating my photography.  I’m talking about the Honda Element and I’m writing this as a eulogy of sorts since I’ve just learned that 2011 will be its last year in production.
I wasn’t always an lover of practical cars with anemic performance.  The car I owned before getting my 2003 was a 1996 BMW 525i Olympic Edition.  It was fast and graceful and for the first few years I owned it the performance a reliability were peerless.  In the early days, while it was undented and the paint was new, the valets at the Four Seasons would park it out front.  Assignments to Dallas were fun to get to and it was never tough to get assistants who were ready to drive.  But whatever it had going for it I was always aware of the shortage of cargo space.

Over time my kid’s muddy shoes graced the leather seats in the back.  The tail lights started failing pretty regularly because I’d leave my sopping wet swim bag in the trunk overnight.  Then, around 60K miles the dark nature of nice cars reared it’s ugly head.  Expensive repairs.  $1300 for the electronic ignition switch which, as part of the theft prevention systems, had to be ordered from Germany and only after I appeared in person with my birth certificate to prove ownership.  The radiator failed twice.  The suspension had issues.  Etc.
I’d “graduated” to the BMW from a Volvo 940 Turbo Wagon which could have been the ultimate photographer’s station wagon if not for the expensive habit of burning up turbochargers every 25,000 miles.  (Yes, I knew enough to let the car idle two minutes after driving before shutting off the motor.)  It was bad enough bringing the car in under warranty, trailing white smoke, but after the first non-warranted turbocharger repair the car had to go away.  Pity as it was nice to be able to load up the back with all the stuff I wanted and needed for a shoot and drive well over 100 mph thru west Texas for the occasional shoot in west Texas......

But then, with the bitter taste of German reliability betrayal still on the tongue of my car consciousness I, on a lark, test drove a Honda Element.  Not fast.  Not quiet.  Never parked in the front driveway of a five star hotel.  But able to fit nearly the entire inventory of my studio in the back with room for an assistant and a beautiful model on board.
The sexy allure of $125 tune ups.  The amazing head room.  The stadium seating in the back.  And, amazingly, the ability to remove one (or both) of the back seats, lay out a sleeping bag and have a portable hotel room with inches to spare for my feet and my head.  It’s a car that takes photographers back to their roots as happy go lucky kids ready to go anywhere and willing to sleep in their cars to get the shots at sunrise.  And when the repairs do need to occur they are priced only in the one hundreds, not in the thousands.......and my local dealer makes good coffee and offer fresh kolaches and wi-fi.

I always thought, that when I had enough miles on this 2003 Element that I’d trade it in or sell it and get myself a brand new one.  Maybe even trade up to an SC model with the lower profile.  In fact, I could see myself buying an Element every ten years until the police took my license away. 

But now all my hope are dashed.  Smashed on the rocks of bad marketing.  Seems that the marketing people were the drivers behind the design and the demographic targeting of the Element.  They had their hearts set on creating a “cool” set of “wheels” for young surfers and groovy guys, just out of college.  In the hopeful minds of the marketers flocks of upscale millenials would rush to the dealers with their BMX bikes and their bongos, load up their girlfriends and haul off to the beaches and the mountains to sit around campfires, smiling, with their wide open Elements beckoning in the background.

Alas, it was not to be.  The primary market self selected.  They were predominantly over 40.  A surprising number were single women over 40.  With dogs.  And couples over 50 who could understand what a great value the car was.  And photographers.  I know so many photographers who have Elements that it’s become a stereotype.  In the distant future, when they make 3D sitcoms about photographers from the first decade in our new century, they’ll seat them firmly in Honda Elements.

Now I’m getting nervous.  My silver Element only has 75,000 miles on the odometer but I live in fear that it will dissolve under me and I won’t be able to replace it with a shiny new one.  And that’s made me a bit edgy.  Now I’m looking around to see what the next “photo nerd” vehicle will be.  I’m kinda leaning toward a Ford Flex because it’s nearly as goofy looking as the E.  I’m trying to keep it running because Ben gets his license next October and I’d like for him to get some use out a such a wonderful car.
  
If you have an opinion from the point of view of a photographer I’d love to hear it.  I’m nearly always fascinated by why people drive what they drive.  Anyways.  Honda Element, I loved you while you were here......

26 comments:

Stephen Cysewski said...

Ford Transit Connect
Honda FIT
Mazda 5
Ford C-Max
I love the FIT but wished it had the easy to clean interior of the Element
Steve

Hugh said...

Average age of Honda drivers in the UK is something like 55 - because they never go wrong.

I can't see any reason why your Honda couldn't last at least 200,000 miles - they're that well build.

Me - I drive classic Rangerovers - my last one did 250,000 very hard miles in 20 years before I sold it and replaced it with a "new" 1990 model with only 115,000 miles. I'm 55, and don't plan on replacing this one ever.

MichaelG said...

Don't get too down on your Element. At 75K, it's still a youngster. Change the oil every 3,000 miles and you may get another 300K out of it. I've routinely driven my Hondas for more than 15 years before even considering a replacement.

Plus, so long as it has a tank full of gas your son will love it, too.

Cheers... M

jefflynchdev said...

Kirk,

I drive a Subaru Forester with all my commercial gear (lights,stands, power-packs, modifiers, grip stuff) loaded in the back during the week and all my camera/hiking/camping gear loaded in the back during the weekends. I've camped out of the back and slept in it during thunderstorms. The moon roof is so large I can open it and setup up a tripod to shoot from while standing on the back seat.

I get 25 MPG running all over Houston and all over Texas. The four-cylinder horizontal engine and all-wheel drive have taken me from Sugar Land to Amarillo to El Paso to Harlingen and back to Houston with ease. I put about 50K miles on it every year and expect it to last well past 150K. I've run it on the dirt roads throughout the Hill Country and into the Panhandle. Wash it down and it looks good enough to drive to One Shell Plaza in Houston for a client meeting.

Spiny Norman said...

You might want to consider this rather carefuly before you plonk down the cash for a 1.2 L, Kirk.

On the 7D the an f/1.2 lens is T/2.5, and the DOF is probably equivalent to f/2.5, too. On the 5DII you do a bit better: the f/1.2 lens is T/1.5 or 1.6.

But the bottom line is that people who buy ultra-fast glass for cameras with digital sensors are buying the placebo effect, if their intention is to shoot wide-open.

kirk tuck said...

Funny, Jeff. I'm looking at the Forester. Seems pretty cool to me.

Dave Jenkins said...

Good grief, Kirk. Why all the angst? Any Honda is good for 300K.

Stephen said...

After your lengthy ode to the element I would expect you to take advantage of it's last year in production and buy another one. Is there some problem inherent in driving a specific model after it ceases production? Can you enlighten me?

J. R. said...

My son and his wife bought an '04 Element brand new and now has about 100K miles, still running fine. He and his wife are both in their 20's and are public school teachers in San Antonio AND are photographers. They run a wedding and portrait business on the side, plus they are into astronomy and pack the Element with photo gear and telescope stuff quite often. They still like it alot!

kirk tuck said...

Stephen and Dave, My plan was to get to 100K miles, (about three years from now), give the boy the Element to drive for college and then buy myself a brand new one. But, if they discontinue it then I won't be able to buy a new one in three years. It's tragic. It's my favorite car ever. I guess I could get used to something else but......

Hugh said...

Best time to buy a car is often just before it's discontinued - the price drops, they put loads of extras on to improve sales, and the faults have all been fixed.

Worst time to buy - when it's a new model.

Robert said...

Get the 2011 E and put the decision off until 2020. I'm sure that a well used Element is the car of choice for the teenage childeren of photographers.

Robert said...

I just caught your 3 year plan.

Will Alan said...

Wow... only 65k on a 2003! I have 37k on my 2007! I did not know they were discontinuing this perfect photographer vehicle! I'm not going to panic just yet... since I know I'll have this for quite a while! It is the best kind of vehicle... paid for! I love it for all the same reasons you mentioned... plus XM radio! I'm still finishing the roof rack platform for that dandy landscape vantage point! And yeah... why not buy this years model... I mean... seriously... how long will it be until the police take your license anyway? *smile*

John said...

My 1997 Suburban is still going strong. Yes, the gas mileage sucks. But I haven't had a payment in years so it works out for me. Lay all the seats down and I can haul more gear than I know what to do with including full length rolls of seamless. It's also great for road trips where it can do double duty as a motel room for two.

Dennis Elam said...

The Element is the new VW Micro Bus, slow and lots of room.

And I agree with John, my 1995 Suburban is in great shape at 155 K

Edward Yezekian said...

Kinda makes me miss my 1991 pathfinder... not sure why...

Neil Gaudet said...

There are two photographers that drive Honda elements in my home town. Both with car graphics. I actually test drove one but couldn't bring myself to get one, it's like a standard issue car for photographers.

So I drive a truck, a four door Nissan frontier with a lockable tonneau cover. Works for me. Swallows upnall my gear out of sight, goes anywhere and is super reliable. Ad I didn't get any vehicle graphics or photographer stencils on it.

zijon said...

http://www.vw.com/en/models/routan.html

Jack Wilson said...

Kirk - I know how you feel about the Element. I cried when I had to part with my Accord after 11 years. I started driving Toyota's in 1969 and Honda's in 83 and have never had a complaint. They were great cars. A couple of years ago I had to replace my car (accident) and being a trained "analyst", I did the research thing. One car kept coming up in the surveys and reports consistently which had me scratching my head. So I went and drove one and was totally blown away. A Hyundai Sonata!!!! YOU HEARD ME - A HYUNDAI!!!

Still being a bit skeptical I decide to lease one instead of plunking cash. In the four years I drove it I had ZERO problems - nada, zip, zorch!!!
When the lease expired I bought one and the story's the same - other than routine maintenance and consumables, nada problems.

My recommendation - shop around for a low mileage Hyundai Santa-Fe. Excellent vehicle and so many people still turn their noses up at them they can be had for great prices. You will not regret it.

Michael Meissner said...

Yes, I bought an Element in 2005. My wife and daughter absolutely hate the car because it is uncomfortable to them and has some blind spots, but for carrying stuff it has served me well. I think it matches an Olympus E-3 and 14-54mm/50-200mm weather sealed lenses :-)

I've been meaning to make a bumper sticker for it that says "I'm in my element taking pictures" along with 2 of my keepers.

Yeah, I'm in my 50's and not a 20-something, and when it comes time to get a new car, I will need to look around for something new that has 4 wheel drive, offers carrying capacity for both dump runs and road trips. But like the E-3, that will probably be some time away.

In terms of cars, I would probably be drawn to a Jeep or Suburu outback. At work, we have a few Elements and Jeeps, and we tend to cluster together in the parking lot.

Mail Order Mystic said...

Even though I don't live in Texas anymore, I have always been a pickup man. F-250 diesel with a shell on back. I can haul more stuff than I ever hope to own. Now if I just had your driving habits...I have 63,000 miles on my 2007.
Take a look at the subaru outback also. they are very popular with the skiers up here in Colorado.

Mark said...

Subaru Outback. Not the latest models, which have become more luxury-like and consequently heavier and less gas-efficient, but '96 through '05. Or the recent Forrester. If you're buying used, shop in the late spring as people hold on to them over the winters.

But really, just stick to your plan with the Element, if you like it. Let someone else take the initial hit on depreciation, have it checked out by a mechanic you trust, and enjoy it for many more miles.

camerakungfu said...

Well, for my photo lugging needs I have a Toyota FJ Cruiser. Plenty of tie-downs in the cargo area for securing my box of wet plate chemicals and gear. And the 4X4 gets me into any desert or mountain locations I need to go. Also, the sooner the motor dies the sooner I'll drop a diesel one in and be running on waste vegetable oil. But my last Toyota had 170,000 miles before anything horrible went wrong. So I may be waiting a while.

Jimmy said...

Just don't get an Xterra, horrible millage. Wish I thought about it before I bought it, but I was young, naive and single. It's still fun to drive, especially this winter with all the snow we've had, but 12mpg fully loaded kinda kills my wallet. Thankfully it's almost paid off.

Neil Hanawalt said...

A few years ago I wanted an Element. But the wife talked me into a Pathfinder which has been our best vehicle to date. I still expect to buy an Element at some point.. my only complaint was the ride in the back seat in a photographer friend of mine's. The seat was short with my legs extending to much off the cushion. I think Honda missed it when they chose a lesser performing 4-wheel drive system and a weak motor. Funny, the Flex was on my radar too.