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2004 Honda Element-D - Out of its Element

With the Element-D, Honda R&D Americas aims to show everyone the squarish cargo hauler can far exceed its yuppified sport ute image. We talk to project primary James Robinson for a first look at the oversteering orange box from Ohio.

May 1, 2007
Photographer: Nick Lehner

Amid a pack of Fits in the Honda booth at the 2006 SEMA show, it wasn't a cute subcompact, or a concept car, or a factory-blessed JDM Civic, but a bright orange rectilinear SUV in a back corner that got the most stares. Dubbed the Element-D, it was almost jarring to absorb at first, given its neon paint, spare, raced-out cabin, and fabricated aluminum monstrosity affixed to the head of the non-native V6 under the hood. It was kind of like seeing your virginal daughter come home from her first concert with her head shaved, skin inked, and sporting more piercings than the kid behind the counter at Nothing Shocking.

That initial surprise probably turned to disbelief when folks learned the aberrant utility vehicle was created to compete in the '07 Formula D Championship, the preeminent drifting series in the U.S. And exactly who was nuts enough to believe they could get Honda's trendy S.U.V. going sideways long enough to link up several turns? Why, none other than the brainiacs that inhabit Honda R&D Americas in Raymond, Ohio, that's who.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. HRDA is the same place that bore Team Honda Research rally and three 25 Hours of Thunderhill enduro efforts. Keep in mind, none of these have been officially sanctioned Honda productions, per se. The company comes up with many of the OE parts, sure, but the aftermarket gear requires personal legwork (and sometimes resources), and the labor is done entirely off company time. It is, however, a labor of love.

The story behind this latest piece of R&D geekery gone awry actually sort of fell into our lap. Our trusted lensman Rodrez made a connection with HDRA Engine Systems/Drivability Engineer James Robinson via the Web, one of a handful of primary developers on the Element-D project, and passed along Robinson's contact info to us. Over the course of the next few months we scrambled to get photographs and info on the iconoclastic machine, just to be the first ones to the punch. That meant tracking down Robinson in Alaska, where he was testing, to respond to our questions. The answers he provided were ultimately delayed further when a weather emergency (severe snow) greeted him as he returned to Ohio.

Who knew the life of an R&D engineer could be so exciting? With hours to spare before our deadline, Robinson got us his answers, which we present herewith. Enjoy.

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Honda Tuning: Where did this idea come from? What attracted you to this particular challenge, getting an Element to drift and doing it competitively?

James Robinson: The idea of making an Element drift came to me more as an extension of how to creatively use the Element as a platform. We generally showcase the Element's versatility with regard to seating configuration and storage potential, but we saw that by virtue of its uni-body construction there was much more versatility to be realized by way of drivetrain modification. The drifting aspect of the project came naturally for two reasons: 1.) drifting is largely an aesthetic sport, and an Element drifting next to a 2-door sports car would certainly draw a lot of attention, and 2.) I love oversteer!

HT: Who has worked on the vehicle so far? Anyone from outside of Honda R&D?

JR: As you might expect, it takes a lot of in-house expertise to do our daily jobs of designing and developing Honda and Acura autos and light trucks, but we did get some help from a local race shop, who built our cage, exhaust, and bell housing. For the most part, however, the entire project has been done in house, on our own time after the workday, by about 10 engineers and fabrication specialists, including myself.

HT: Working solely off company time, how long did the build take? What order in general was everything put together?

JR: Our executives gave us the opportunity in July of 2005 and we really began in earnest on dissecting our stock Element in January 2006. We worked most nights and weekends from that time until now! Probably in total, we worked about 500 hours in addition to our normal workday.

The order of construction was to first determine what differential would fit on the stock rear subframe. After we modified the rear subframe to carry an 8.8-inch IRS differential, we then lined up the output for the transmission to ensure no modifications to the under-floor/tunnel area. Then we developed the motor mounts.

The roll cage was done as we fabricated the drivetrain. The whole project to convert the Element's drivetrain really was a blessing, because our intention to minimize changes to the uni-body during the conversion ended up being the easiest way to install the RWD running gear. At this point, converting any Element from AWD to RWD, like ours, can be done by modifying the front and rear subframes only. Well, that and 500 hours of labor.

HT: How difficult was it to swap in the V6 motor? How is it holding up?

JR: The swap was actually quite easy. No changes were made to the firewall or radiator bulkhead area and our initial installation only took a day or so to set up and weld in. So far, we've had no driveline failures at all, which I attribute largely to the team using a predominantly stock front subframe. From prior experience we've found that it's much easier and safer to stick with subframes that we've already designed and proven in the market than to try a completely new idea.

HT: Has there been any modification in displacement of the 3.2-liter J-series mill? What kind of compression is it seeing?

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JR: The J32 we're using still has the stock forged crank, but we've replaced the connecting rods with forged I-beam units and some low compression forged pistons. The current static CR is 8.0:1.

HT: Any changes made to the oil system?

JR: At this point no, but we're designing a dry sump system for it to primarily improve ground clearance. By virtue of the fact that we've rotated the engine 90 degrees, there is already significant toughness to high lateral g maneuvers in the stock oil pan, as this translates into normal longitudinal acceleration/deceleration maneuvers in its original orientation.

HT: Was anything done to the cylinder heads, like a port and polish? How about the valvetrain? Stock camshafts?

JR: The heads are completely stock because our heads really do flow well right from the factory. The valvetrain is also stock and we're still using stock camshafts because we're making all the power we currently need. Our goal wasn't to make the most powerful J32; our goal was to use as many stock parts as we could and create a very drivable and usable engine that made enough power to smoke the rear tires into oblivion!

HT: How about the ECU? Did either you or the supplier simply tune the stock box, or come up with a completely new computer?

JR: This is one of the questions I was hoping you'd ask. One of the main jobs that my colleagues, Justin Chiodo, Jared Vanderhoof, and Todd Luken and I have at Honda R&D is the data calibration of the engine. It was one of our primary goals to create an engine that met the same quality standards and drivability targets as our mass-produced engines, and to that end, the best way to achieve these goals is to use a stock ECU and our own proprietary software so we could rapidly monitor and map the engine as well as to compensate for differences introduced by the turbos (i.e., increased intake manifold volume, drive line friction, new gear ratios, etc.) Since we develop both the engine hardware AND the controlling software, it's very easy for us to create unique powertrain solutions without having to look beyond our own parts bins.

HT: Who set up the turbo system? At what point in the RPM range is the engine seeing useful boost?

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JR: The turbo system was set up in house, and we chose the Garrett GT28RS turbos for this engine. They spool up quite quickly and we typically have peak boost around 2500RPM.

HT: Why make a custom manifold with integrated intercooler?

JR: The intercooler idea was more of a packaging idea than anything. We realized that we could get better turbo response, more compact packaging, and better cooling performance by going with a large water/air intercooler. Our reservoir is located in the rear of the vehicle and can store around 12 gallons of chilled water. Our manifold is still in the prototype stage and we're currently trying different intake layouts to find the best compromise between packaging/performance and throttle response. Besides, it looks like an Igloo cooler, which is always good.

HT: Who did the exhaust?

JR: We subbed out the exhaust for our twin turbo after we tried creating one in house. A nearby shop does excellent work, and he apparently liked the challenge of routing 3.5-inch exhaust tubing through the rear suspension! He may have had quite a nightmare in creating the custom exhaust, but never said so.

HT: Were there any issues in adapting the gearbox to the motor? Is it simply a matter of using a bell housing plate?

JR: Actually, the bellhousing was quite simple due to the construction of the TL Type-S transaxle case. There is a natural partition line in the transaxle case upon which the clutch fork and throwout bearing are mounted. By cutting aft of this partition line and lining up the splined shaft of the gearbox, we were able to make a custom bellhousing quite easily while using stock Honda slave cylinder, throwout bearing, and clutch fork.

HT: We know the shafts are custom, but where does that differential housing come from?

JR: Due to the simplicity and ease of getting limited-slip differentials, as well as final drives, we chose the 8.8-inch IRS diff and housing. The stout mounting faces on the differential housing made modifying the rear subframe very easy and clean.

HT: Has the Element D been on a dyno yet?

JR: We've done a little bit of chassis dyno testing in house on this vehicle to set the initial fuel maps and ignition advance. So far, we're seeing 500hp at the wheels.

HT: Who set up the suspension?

JR: We purchased a stock coilover kit and then adjusted damping and spring rate through much trial and error. Fortunately, the Element has quite a low center of gravity (a.k.a. CG) due to the weight removed inside and the low-slung drivetrain, and was very forgiving during the testing process.

HT: What other chassis mods have been made? Any additional bracing? Who set up the rollcage?

JR: My colleague Andrew Jessup and I modified the front subframe to accept a large splined torsion-type stabilizer bar up front to improve roll stiffness, and in the rear, we are using a stock Element SC rear stabilizer. The cage was designed in house, and executed by Holt Racecars.

HT: What is planned for the brake system?

JR: Currently the brake system is stock in the rear, stock master cylinder, TL calipers, TL rotors, and braided brake lines. We use a synthetic DOT4 fluid. Our plan for the future, however, is to switch over to the TL brake system completely and install a proportioning valve and a hydraulic hand brake.

HT: What are the natural strengths of the Element chassis for drifting? Weaknesses?

JR: So far, the strength of the Element's chassis is its versatility. The Formula D rules for converting an AWD vehicle to RWD are very specific about not changing the firewall, tunnel, or suspension pickup points. This type of conversion would have been difficult, if not impossible, on many of our other models. Also, by virtue of the conversion, the vehicle has an even lower CG than stock. Finally, it's one of the few race cars I've driven that I don't have to duck my head-plenty of room!

Obviously, the suspension wasn't originally designed for the type of loading that drifting imposes, but we've worked it out with bushings and static toe/camber angles. Unfortunately, the cage really adds weight. In the end, it's not the lightest car, but it is safe, stable, and does the job well.

HT: We've heard maximizing steering angle from the rack is critical to getting the car sideways. Was anything done to the Element's steering?

0705_ht_17_z+2004_honda_element+engine_view Photo 17/19   |   2004 Honda Element-D - Out of its Element

JR: The Element's steering rack works well and actually is great as far as steering angle goes. We did work with our supplier and got a rack with a faster ratio. The real trick was improving the cooling and capacity of the steering pump. Our first few times out resulted in power steering fluid temps in the 200-degree Celsius range! Other than that, it's stock.

HT: In the list of mods, you mention using a mix of rubber. Have you had an opportunity do any further tire testing?

JR: We've been testing with a lot of different tires, mostly trying to find out which tire has the best compromise between grip and durability. A lot of our tire testing is based on information of what other drift cars are using and the team has been ordering some to evaluate them.

HT: Has anything been done to the body of the Element?

JR: The body of the Element remains stock. The only modification was to cut away some of the hood bracing to improve clearance over our intake manifold. The decals and paint were done by our in-house paint department here at Honda R&D. They do excellent work, and to their credit have painted all 3 of our winning Thunderhill cars: Acura TL (2004) and two Civic Si's (2005).

0705_ht_18_z+2004_honda_element+exhaust_piping Photo 18/19   |   2004 Honda Element-D - Out of its Element

HT: Who is the test driver in the images? Who will be your driver in competition?

JR: Lucky for me, that's me! I will also be our competition driver. I try not to look over my shoulder, but we've got many very, very good race and test drivers here at Honda R&D.

HT: We think we already know the answer to this, but we have to ask: will any of this knowledge be used for any other applications?

JR: Are we gaining knowledge? Yes. Will it be used? Sorry, no comment.

HT: Any fatigue or adrenaline-induced goofiness happen during the build?

JR: It would probably be easier to ask if there weren't days that had fatigue or adrenaline-induced goofiness, because almost always we were starting our day's work on the car at 8:00 pm and working until after midnight after working all day at our day job. Of course, we take safety very seriously and tried to avoid making important judgments at the end of long days, but somehow we still wound up with an orange RWD 500hp twin-turbocharged Element.

0705_ht_19_z+2004_honda_element+interior_view Photo 19/19   |   2004 Honda Element-D - Out of its Element

HT: Finally, who would you like to thank?I would have to start by thanking our core team who not only believed in this idea, but have worked so hard to make it a reality. In Honda R&D we have a special program that allows us to present crazy ... let's say "unique" ideas directly to our executives. If they are convinced, they provide support to make those ideas-dreams, really-a reality. It was through that program that the Element D was born. I also want to thank the guys that started that program and encouraged me to participate.

Along the way, there are myriad of logistics (funding, management, sourcing, etc.) and I want to thank everyone who has supported this project and helped me with all of these things. Finally, I really want to thank our president, Hirohide Ikeno, and our powertrain VP, Yasuhisa Arai, who have given their support to this project, but especially for not laughing out loud when I presented the original idea back in 2005. For that, I am most thankful!

Bolts & Washers
Honda R&D Americas' 2004 Element-D

Propulsion
Go: So long, K24 mill and Real Time 4WD drivetrain-replacing them are a longitudinally mounted VTEC J32 V6, also known as an Acura TL motor, and a rear-wheel drive. Bottom end mods amount to Crower I-beam rods and CP 8.0:1 pistons, but the heads remain stock internally. Attached to them is a prototype intake manifold with integrated liquid-to-air intercooler, which draws chilled H2O from a converted ATL spare tire "Well Cell." The combination manifold/heat exchanger gets charged from twin Garrett GT28RS Disco Potato turbos, and Siemens injectors and a Keihin-tuned stock ECU keep pace with the added induction.

Power moves from the J plant to a Tremec T56 6-speed gearbox and down a Driveshaft Shop propeller shaft. The prop is linked to an 8.8-inch independent rear suspension diff housing equipped with a Torsen 2R LSD. Energy ultimately transmits via DSS half shafts to produce a claimed 500 horses at the rear wheels.

Rims & Rubber
Currently the team is testing on 2 different sets of rollers, both sized 18x8.5 for the fronts and 18x9 in the rear: 5Zigen ProRacer GN+ and ASA AR1's (pictured). For the moment, Kumho and Toyo rubber are both being scrutinized, too.

Stance
The box rides on Tein adjustable dampers outfitted with Supersport springs, 690lb/in in front and 500lb/in in the rear. Further planting comes from a custom 1 1/8-inch torsion type front stabilizer bar, and the chassis is braced with a Holt Racecars cage. The D retains all of it's OEM Honda links except the rear upper transverse links, which are SBC adjustable.

Resistance
Forward calipers and rotors have been replaced with Acura TL-spec parts. Pedal effectiveness is fortified with braided lines and synthetic DOT4 fluid.

Fashion
Outside: Honda R&D's on-site paint department sprayed the Element in custom Drift Attack orange.
Inside: OMP seats and harnesses keep Robinson from flopping around the cabin in mid-slide.

Bob Hernandez
511 Articles

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