Secondhand Gems: Thinking Inside The Box

By Christopher Smith

June 15, 2010

There are few automotive genres that polarize the motoring masses more than the one we’re about to discuss. Perhaps the word genre isn’t entirely accurate here, because the three vehicles featured in this comparison have, at one point or another, been labeled the following: crossover, sport-utility vehicle, compact, subcompact, five-door hatchback, station wagon, and our personal favorite, foxy boxy. (It’s possible we made that last category up.) What matters here is that these three cars are pretty much all of the above, making them a bit hard to pigeonhole. And therein lies the appeal for these, um, vehicles. They’re not status quo, they’re not cookie cutter, and while their love-it-or-hate-it styling isn’t for everyone, there’s no denying the sense of individuality these vehicles bestow upon their owners. So go ahead and label these non-conformist rides goofy, or hideous, or ugly, but don’t forget to include quirky, cool, and the most important descriptor of all, successful—especially in the youth market where individuality is everything.

A few honorable mentions before we begin. The Nissan Cube and Kia Soul are obviously part of this segment, but neither have been on the market long enough to establish much of a Secondhand Gems reputation. We also toyed with the idea of including the PT Cruiser, which set the automotive halls buzzing with excitement back when Y2K was the pending apocalypse. We know the PT Cruiser’s low resale makes it a fabulous price-per-practicality purchase, but we also know that the Cruiser hasn’t really changed in ten years. In a group where novelty plays a starring role, the Cruiser’s Neon roots and decade-old design ceased being novel quite a few years ago.

The three vehicles below, however, do offer the quirkiness and uniqueness demanded by this segment, while offering a good amount of practicality and fun in the process. A quick browse through eBay Motors confirms that all three choices fall well under $20,000, and being just a couple of years old, they should also fall within factory warranty guidelines. They’re not necessarily performance machines—at least not all of them—but sometimes, just being different is enough to make for an enjoyable driving experience.

2008 Honda Element SC
As the eldest vehicle of this list, the Element enjoys a bit of seniority over its contenders, having entered the U.S. market back in 2003. It’s the only compact box offered in either front or all-wheel drive, giving it an all- weather advantage over the others in this test. It’s also the quirkiest member of the group by far, utilizing “clamshell” doors sans B-pillars, similar to the four door arrangement on the Mazda RX-8. The result is superb side loading/unloading capability, but the front doors must already be opened before the rears can be used. That may or may not be a big deal to some people, but since the Element is strictly a four passenger machine anyway, it’s not like there’s going to be constant ingress/egress from the two back seats alone. Speaking of the seats, not only do the rears fold sideways for increased storage (hence the Element being strictly a four passenger machine), all the seats fold flat, creating a sort of lumpy mattress for, well, we’re not really sure.

We prefer to roll with the sexed-up SC edition, which swaps the standard rubber floor for carpet, adds a bunch of trim, drops the suspension, and trades up for eighteen-inch wheels. Unfortunately, the transformation doesn’t add any power, and with 3500 pounds saddling the Element’s 2.4-liter, 166-horsepower engine, expect to hit 60 miles per hour somewhere north of 9 seconds. Yes, it’s the slowest of the group, but it’s not as terrible as it sounds. Opt for the manual transmission over the five-speed automatic, and seat time in the Element can be rather fun; occupants sit low despite the high-boy look, and handling characteristics are very car-like thanks to the SC’s tuned suspension. The Element SC doesn’t come cheap, however, with used prices still holding in the $17,000 to $18,000 range. Yes, it does come optioned up at that price, but it’s only available in front-wheel drive, and it still carries 3500 pounds everywhere it goes. If only the Element was a bit lighter, or a bit less expensive, this cool box would have it all.

2008 Scion xB
Launched in 2008, the second-generation Scion xB is one of those rare cases where near-unilateral improvements across the board resulted in something not necessarily as entertaining as the original. It’s like watching the remastered editions of the first Star Wars Trilogy—they might be technically superior to the original, but a little bit of character gets lost in the translation. The first Scion xB was tiny, unabashedly square, and totally cool because of it. The redesigned 2008 model is slightly larger, slightly rounder, definitely heavier, and, well, not as endearing. We understand the method behind the madness here, but in a segment where character is a key selling point, pushing the boundaries of that character to capture a more mainstream audience is a risky proposition.

With that in mind, it should be noted that the Scion isn’t a failure by any means. The 2.4-liter engine (up nearly a full liter in size from the previous xB) launches this whimsical people mover to 60 miles per hour in about eight seconds, over a second quicker than the Element, and enough to stave off boredom between traffic lights. Its increased size doesn’t translate to more passenger room, but drop the rear seats and the xB gains quite a bit of cargo capacity from the previous generation, placing it more in line with its competitors. It offers a comfortable ride that is at least mildly sporting; by the numbers it actually bites better than the old model, though it’s not nearly as spry or entertaining to toss around. Nor should it be; at a full 3000 pounds, the 2008 xB is more than 500 pounds heavier than its father figure. So yeah, maybe it gained some weight, got a haircut, and set about becoming a decent, productive member of society, but it still has character. It can still be all customized with factory equipment. It still has an unmistakably boxy figure. And with 2008 models going for just $12,000 all day long, it’s still an amazingly good purchase in this segment. We wish the old xB could’ve stuck around a bit longer, but in this case, “not as good as the original” is still pretty darn good.

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
We admit it. We succumbed to the horsepower gods on this one. Not that the HHR isn’t a looker—its retro styling with a boxy behind is plenty unique, striking our fancy with reasonable interest. The SS version adds a much-needed dose of visual aggression thanks to unique fascias, dropped suspension, eighteen-inch rubber, and a monochromatic finish. It’s nice enough on the inside as well, though we still prefer the Honda’s instrumentation and the Scion’s fit and finish. At least General Motors saw fit to relocate the power window controls to the driver door armrest—heeding the vicious comments from both road testers and owners of previous HHR models. The SS edition also comes with suede inserts on the seats, 140-mph instrumentation, anti-lock brakes, and stability control as standard equipment. When it comes to cargo, the HHR isn’t quite as efficient with its use of space, though in reality the differences between its competitors are negligible. The HHR does offer the most comfortable accommodations in our opinion, especially for rear seat occupants. And while the HHR SS may not have clamshell doors or offer a choice of 50 different dealer-installed exhaust tips, it does have a boost gauge sticking out of the driver side A-pillar, and boost is always good.

When mated to a five-speed manual transmission, the boosted 2.0-liter Ecotec four cylinder powering the SS delivers 260 horsepower (automatics are detuned to 235) at 5300 revs. The little mill also makes an impressive 260 pound-feet of torque at a lowly 2000 rpm, giving this otherwise mediocre compact wagon/SUV/cross-over a serious makeover in the fun department. That translates to 0-60 times near six seconds flat for the manual-equipped cars, with quarter-mile times easily into the 14s. If that’s not enough motivation to row your own gears, the stick-shift SS also comes with launch control and a “no-lift shift” feature that lets you keep the skinny pedal planted while shifting, thus maintaining full boost throughout the acceleration run. If that sounds suspiciously like the not-so-fine art of power shifting, well, you’d be right, except that the HHR keeps full power from obliterating the tranny when the
clutch pedal goes in. Still, for what amounts to an entry level performance car, we’re impressed. We’re also impressed with the suspension tuning, which turns this flaccid retro-mobile into a fairly capable corner-carver. It’s not going to take any points away from a Mazdaspeed3, but the HHR’s firmer footing, limited-slip differential, and almost nonexistent torque steer deliver an enthusiastic driving experience that the Element or xB can’t begin to match. Considering the 2008 HHR SS delivers this performance for roughly the same cost as the Element, it becomes easy to look past the relatively small deficiencies from the Chevy.

We tend to favor horsepower in this neck of the suburbs, but we dig each one of these unique genre-busters. When it comes to quirky options in a totally different kind of vehicle, the Element is king. Customization and personalization in a crazy inexpensive package is still the domain of the xB. The HHR SS is not so much with the true box shape, but its boxy-retro styling is unique and attractive while offering horsepower heroics with every stab of the gas. Generation Y, your vehicles have arrived.