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Buying used: In search of a small, durable SUV for less than $15,000

BUYING USED

In search of a small, durable SUV for less than $15,000

There's nothing quite like the Element, but the CR-V is a more conventional alternative

You don't see the Honda Element on the road as frequently as you used to, but I still like them (I like the bumper-car fenders and the fact that you can hose it out). Why did Honda get rid of it? I want a small, durable all-wheel-drive SUV for less than $15,000 and I can't think of anything that compares. – Phil, Toronto

Honda has been out of its Element for seven years – and there's never been anything quite like it.

Sure, the Element was part of the heyday of car makers thinking inside the box – which got us the Nissan Cube, Ford Flex, Kia Soul and Scion xB.

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Sure, they all could handle a rugged (or even a not-so-rugged) Saturday, whether it was taking your rescue dog with you to go climbing or picking up shrubs from Home Depot. But none of them looked as durable or rugged.

Still, despite the concept – the Element was designed as a lifestyle vehicle for surfer dudes – by the time it was retired, the median age of buyers was 52. And there weren't enough of them.

After a peak in 2006, with 3,066 Elements sold in Canada, Honda sold just 380 in 2010 – the last model year here (it hung on in the United States for a year longer). That same year, Canadians bought 24,930 CR-Vs.

Online, Element owners lamented the loss, even though you couldn't really hose it out (a damp mop worked best on the LX and EX versions that didn't have carpet).

More conventional alternatives? The Chevy Equinox ($14,625 for a 2012), Subaru Forester ($14,290 for a 2012), Honda CR-V ($12,458 for a 2010) and Toyota RAV4 ($14,685 for a 2011).

Let's compare Honda to Honda and look at the Element EX (the base LX has front-wheel drive) and the CR-V.

2010 Honda Element EX AWD

2010 Honda Element.

  • First generation: 2003-2010 (refresh in 2009)
  • Average asking price: $13,948 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Trims: LX, EX and SC
  • Transmission/Drive: Five-speed automatic/All-wheel drive
  • Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.5 city, 9.8 highway

With the Element, Rubbermaid met the road – until the composite fenders were replaced with metal in 2009. Still, despite small changes, the CR-V-based Element's core elements stayed the same.

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"Apart from some cosmetic and equipment upgrades over the years, the Element hasn't changed much since its debut," review site Edmunds said. "That means it still offers inherent practicality and an easy-to-handle nature."

Edmunds liked the roomy cabin, removable rear seats, easy cargo loading thanks to the rear suicide doors and good crash-test scores. But it wasn't thrilled that the Element only seated four, was awkward to climb in and out of, and had lacklustre fuel economy.

Consumer Reports gave the 2010 Element five out of five for reliability.

"Despite [its] unique features, it wasn't as nice to live with over all as the CR-V," the magazine said. "Those rear-hinged rear doors can be a hassle, and the thick roof pillars interfere with the view out."

The 2010 Element had two recalls, both for the same issue with Takata air bags.

2010 Honda CR-V EX AWD

2010 Honda CR-V.

  • Third generation: 2007-2011 (refresh in 2010)
  • Average asking price: $12,458 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Trims: LX, EX and EX-L
  • Transmission/Drive: Five-speed automatic/All-wheel drive (also available in front-wheel drive)
  • Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city, 8.9 highway

Unlike the Element, the CR-V doesn't really have a gimmick. And that's the whole point.

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"The CR-V was, and is, the epitome of driver-friendliness – easy to drive, comfortable, dependable, affordable, thrifty and versatile," Globe Drive said. "It's not the kind of vehicle that makes you sit up and bark, but for mainstream buyers, it's exactly what the doctor ordered."

Edmunds liked the ample passenger and cargo room, straightforward controls, nifty family-friendly features such as the conversation mirror, agile handling and great crash-test scores. Its gripes? The lack of an optional V-6, and some wind and road noise.

For 2010, it got a 14-horsepower boost to 180, which "makes the Honda CR-V more competitive against other four-cylinder-powered crossovers," it said. "The CR-V sets itself apart with remarkably nimble handling thanks to a relatively firm suspension and sharp steering."

Consumer Reports gave the 2010 CR-V five out of five for reliability.

"With a roomy rear seat, easy access, flexible interior, and improved handling, it ranked among the best compact SUVs of its time," the magazine said.

There were three recalls, including a fix for a transmission bearing that could fail and potentially cause engine failure.

Trying to decide on a used car? Send your questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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