It’s unlikely that there was ever a time when anyone ever thought that new cars weren’t outrageously expensive, but if you’re looking to go electric the situation seems worse now than ever. The average price of a new EV is about $66,000, which seems like a large amount of equivalent pizza and beer. Sure, EVs will be aimed at luxury buyers until prices go down, but what about the rest of us?
There have always been attempts to offer an alternative to buyers that simply don’t want to buy a used car. One of the most famous would be the Zastava Yugo, imported by Malcolm Bricklin starting in 1985 and sold for $3,990 (only about $11,300 today!) when the cost of the average new car was about $9,800 (about $28,000 today, which makes sense.)
How could he sell them so cheaply? Certainly, the labor rates in Yugoslavia were lower than in other parts of the world, but what other factors were involved in getting the car itself to market so inexpensively?
source: Yugo via Pinterest
One reason is that Zastava, like car manufacturers in many Eastern Bloc or less wealthy nations, didn’t start with a blank sheet of paper for this car. Many firms in these countries actually produced cars with tooling from models often discontinued by large manufacturers in industrially developed countries. The Yugo was really a modified Fiat 128, which debuted in 1969.
source: Wikipedia /Garage de l’Est and Wikimedia/Mr Choppers
A lot of European automakers offered their plans and designs to Eastern countries to build under license. Russia built the Lada 1300/Riva from the Fiat 124 sedan.
source: Wikipedia/Luc106 and Wikipedia/Charles01
Romania offered the Dacia, which was a Renault 12, and they offered it forever.
source: Wikipedia/Snoopy1974and Wikipedia/TrainSimFan
Iran made the Pakyan long after the UK had discontinued the Hillman Hunter on which it was based (and long after Hillman ceased to exist.)
source: Wikipedia /Charles01 and Wikimedia/Fabienkahn
China sold a version of the second-generation VW Jetta up until 2013.
source: Wikipedia/Bcirker and Wikimedia/Kevauto
Today, you can apparently STILL buy a brand new Peugeot 405 in Egypt, essentially the same one that the French firm introduced in 1987. Iran also still had it in production fairly recently.
source: Wikipedia /Ehsanpesa and Wikimedia/author
Not only were these cars affordable to local buyers, but many were sold in Western Europe (or even Canada) to people that wanted a brand-new-with-warranty car and just didn’t care if it was that latest and greatest thing. Besides, they were often getting a mid-sized sedan for the price of a new dinky hatchback from a Western company. And in many of these markets, they didn’t (or don’t) have the same emissions and safety standards we’re used to, and that allows these much older designs to stay in production forever.
One reason companies used to do this design recycling is because of the time and money spent on the development of a new car; it was well beyond the capabilities of some of these nations to start from scratch. One could argue that with today’s CAD capabilities and global resources, these companies could just develop a car on their own, but creating a durable, quality, reliable car in a reasonable amount of time is another story. Indian firm Tata made their own Nano sub-$2,000 car in the 2000s, and it was a failure. Heck, even world-beating Tesla had to start with the Lotus Elise for its first car.
Truth be told, I think that even today if a nation without much history in making ready-for-prime-time cars grabbed the tooling of a discontinued model from a larger manufacturer they’d be able to jump ahead much faster. If they’re looking at making an EV drivetrain, that’s where they should be spending their development time and not on, say, a suspension system or leak-free doors.
Chinese and Indian manufacturers are, of course, not going to go down this time-tested path. Tata currently has a series of small EVs now which apparently aren’t ready to be sold here that look sort of like the nondescript unbranded cars you’ll see on a banner in a bank promoting loan rates:
source: Tata Motors and Tata Motors
They’ve also got concepts on the table which, depending on the source, they say will possibly be ready “by 2025” or “before 2027.” Whatever the date is, we can assume that this mission creep means they’ll be dated-looking by launch time and they possibly hit showrooms in North America that do not yet exist:
source: Tata Motors and Tata Motors
My prediction? As Mr. T said in Rocky III: “PAIN!” You know they’ll experience the typical teething problems and recalls, possibly becoming a punchline to a joke before they get off the ground.
What if a firm like Tata did the old-school trick and find a car to rehash? I am not saying to electrify a two-generation-old Altima or something equally soul-crushing (if it’s Tata, you might think they’d dredge up the Freelander). You would hope they could find something that didn’t look too dated, or be of a design that kind of transcends time stamping (the Mercedes G Wagen is a good example). What about a car that never got a fair shake when new, or was even ahead of its time? Like those canceled TV shows that people appreciate years later?
After a lot of looking, I might have just the car. The Honda Element, which for a time, was among the very best at what it did.
When considering the rear-hinge-door equipped EV BMW i3, I’ve heard one friend say, “It’s kind of like my old Honda Element but doesn’t seem as useful…I never should have sold my Element.”
Or another person I know: “I sold my Element when I moved to the city… now I need a car and don’t see anything I like as much.”
(Editor’s note: Yeah, I’ve talked to several former Element owners over the years who truly miss theirs and never found a real replacement. This is a whole thing. -PG)
The Element was truly an underrated design. The almost non-styling of the appearance means that isn’t mired by Altezza taillight-like trends of yesterday. This thing always looked like it was penned by a product designer and not a car guy, and that might be why it never found the audience that it should have.
With a hose-down the floor and seats you configure into a bed, this multi-purpose vehicle with a puppy dog-faced was essentially the do-everything machine that the Pontiac Aztec was supposed to be but wasn’t. Also, even though it’s rare to find a bad Honda, this one ranks as one of the most reliable and durable.
KN Motors (aka Kia) has this annoying robo-dog mascot for their electric cars? Shit, how about a WHOLE CAR that looks like a cyborg terrier?
Friends, meet the Tata Rave:
Here’s a Honda Element reborn as an EV. Odd as it might seem, this thing seems to work even better as an electric car than it did as a gas-powered vehicle.
Not only does the Element have decent ground clearance, but underneath there are large hollow areas that were used for the gas tank and exhaust system, leaving vast space for batteries (even the spare tire well if you wanted to). Front or front-and-rear motors would be an option. Plus, the tall shape means that you’re not losing anything to the low-mounted EV components.
source: Honda via Element Owners Club
If you look closely, you’ll see that I didn’t touch any of the steel parts. I simply added a clean-looking nose with a typical-for-an-EV wraparound light bar, combined with sunken separate headlights to keep the sad-hound look of the original Honda. I also blacked out the B pillars which some Element fans might object to. This example is tricked out with fog lights and alloys but certainly, the base car would have good old steelies.
In the back, I’ve added a wraparound taillight and blanked off the bottoms of the original light clusters (again, zero sheet metal mods.) I’m generally against trying to update old cars with contemporary detailing, but here I’m mainly stripping off much of the 2000s trim and just cleaning up the shape so it seems to work.
Inside, everything is essentially stock with the exception of adding a screen to replace the gauges in front of the driver, combined with a smaller screen in the old ‘double DIN’ radio opening like you can get online for $300:
The original engine compartment is filled with a fiberglass tray for a monstrous frunk:
source: Prestige Motors
What would it cost? We know that the Tata Nano famously cost around the equivalent of $2,500 U.S. The current EVs available in India that are equal to proper crossovers appear to start at around $17,000. However, we know that cost will drop significantly with increased quantities; I think that a sub-$20,000 MSRP would be quite possible. Ultimately, they’ll eventually be able to do drivetrains for the same cost if not less than ICE components.
One last thing- can we talk Tata Rave camping?
So, would Honda care about someone making a car it dropped over 10 years ago? It’s unlikely; we’ve neither seen nor heard of plans for a new one. Besides, it’s not like Honda is going to be doing this out of the kindness of its heart; it’ll charge handily for the tooling and likely get a spiff off of each one sold without having to lift a finger.
I mean, if it worked well, Honda could be into the idea so much that it tries to offload tooling for more late, lamented rides we all loved to turn into EVs. Which cars would you like to see? My Honda picks: the no-bullshit simple-box 2005 Odyssey minivan or a 2004 Acura TL, the “Japanese E39.”
Could this modern-day Lada idea work? I seriously doubt anyone will try it, but I’m still convinced that re-using old car tooling with some updates remains a great idea. And it has endless potential in the EV age.
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I would personally prefer a hybrid version as I’m not ready for the full EV treatment, but this a very compelling idea and your evocation is quite appealing. I wouldn’t ditch the analog gauges, though. Hate screens.
Canopysaurus- I agree, but doing analog gauges with an EV might be difficult
It would be more expensive for sure, but if you start your analogue dash ICE car and the gauges do a full initial sweep they are digital and just running a mechanical analogue display. There is no reason that I see one couldn’t do that with the inputs from an EV, but maybe I’m missing something.
True enough. The Element’s instrument pod is so distinctive it’s hard to capture that with a screen. Maybe three or four little screens?
Canopysaurus- one thing we’ve done at or company for displays is a rectangular screen and a cover with several round openings on that same screen to give the impression of multiple little round screens. Works pretty well, actually.
Someone needs to bring an inexpensive new car over here. People can’t afford new cars anymore, stuck buying used 🙁
Are u new to economic/income segregation and classism ?
You mean like the Chevy Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage, or Nissan Versa that aren’t exactly flying out of showrooms?
Maymar- Yeah, because parents with 2+ kids love the Spark, Mirage, or Versa for their ability to fit the family and any stuff that needs to be hauled to sports practice, band, or vacation.
The Versa’s got a good sized trunk, and a big enough backseat for a pair of car seats assuming the parents aren’t giants. I’ve made do with a Mazda2 for one kid for the past 3.5 years.
And look at all of the examples of low-cost car given up top, all tiny. The Element ìs by far the biggest thing, and that’s only a 4-seater (2 kids only, not 2+), and arguably hamstrung by the suicide doors.
Personally, I would buy used all day every day. I know in the used car market now it is not as appealing, but still beats new car prices. I drive a 2012 Ram that I bought off a friend in 2015. Done a few minor things to update it (backup camera, factory touchscreen, etc.) but other wise it is stock and I paid half the price of what the vehicle was new.
But I regularly look at sub $3k used cars because they are cheap to buy, cheap to fix, and if you get into an accident then cheap to replace.
Such a great idea, just jealous of somebody saying it ’cause I have a similar dream about electrifying my early 00s Civic. I’ve always wondered what happened to the “machines that make the machines” at auto plants: it can’t be like LEGO where they can decide to take the old spaceship wings and reuse that shape as a shark’s fin.
the presses will go on forever, it’s the dies that change and they get worn out. In the last year of production for one of the programs at one of the suppliers i worked at the dies had to be repaired almost daily. Other stuff will get reprogrammed and reused on the lines. This is one of the reasons I’d rather buy a first model year car than a last model year car.
TheClutchRider- I’d say get a second your car and not a first. Way too many teething problems on first year cars; it isn’t just a GM problem.
I hear what you’re saying but I’ve always had far, far more success with the last-of-the-line cars I’ve owned versus early models.
As someone involved with two different 1979 Fox Mustangs, I learned to never buy first-year models unless there were other compelling reasons to do so. Like cheap & available when I have cash: my current situation with a stock early Bugeye. Not gonna stand on principles when there’s fun to be had.
TOSSABL- absolutely- plus most of the fixes with issues on first year models can be retrofitted to earlier cars. Plus, if you’re talking Foxstangs and Bugeyes at this stage of the game I am guessing much of it isn’t stock anymore anyway.
For some time, I’ve felt that Honda should do like Ford and bring back the Element as a nicely simple, practical and affordable choice with recreational capability (a la the Maverick).
Certainly if this is a licensed vehicle design situation Honda could pretty easily add street cred and probably 10 K or more tot he price and import those tot he US. their full BEV coverage is shockingly sparse and the cladding less design with upgraded interior would quite likely draw those not already enamored to the Element back.
Rahul- for some reason I feel like the Element might be better received today than it was nearly twenty years ago. If you look at some of the odd-headed SUVs that have come and gone since then it’s pretty tame by comparison, and if people can accept the look they just can’t argue with the functionality of it. Resale values on these still seem high.
For some time, I’ve felt that Honda should do like Ford and bring back the Element as a nicely simple, practical and affordable choice with recreational capability (a la the Maverick). Then again, how dealers are receptive to this shall be seen, because markups and yada-yada. Not to mention, current automotive manufacturing is also another matter of its own.
And, on the subject, if Tata could somehow get the Tiago to pass US safety and emissions (it doesn’t have to excel, just pass, 1 star is passing), even if it caused the final price of the car to double over what it is in India (and doubling might be excessive, the car already passed Global NCAP crash tests) , that would still be like $13,000, undercutting the Versa by $2,700. Tata Motors really could probably be the new Yugo if they, or, failing that, a charismatic shyster operating as an independent importer, really wanted to.
Ranwhenparked- I think the issue is more than just emissions and safety. Will it be a reasonably ready for prime time car? Or will you wish you had bought a 150,000 mile decade old Prius instead? If you read about the Yugo they did hundreds or even a thousand little changes to the car to get it ready for the US and they still obviously had problems.
The nut holding the wheel was the big one, if the manual says change the timing belt at 40,000 miles and you don’t, then it goes to the junkyard at 40,000 miles
I’d think anything built for the rigors of Indian roads can handle a Costco parking lot just fine
Maintenance is always a big issue. Many float the argument that driving around Rome is more punishing than many American cities (it is) so that the branding of Italian cars as ‘junk’ years ago in the US was really more a factor of ignorance and unfamiliarity of the owners and the dealer networks.
Also, if that Costco parking lot you mention is in Brainerd, Minnesota in January I wouldn’t discount those rigors.
You aren’t actually supposed to hose out an Element. Please don’t do this or you will rust out your floor.
maccspowers- yeah, that term ‘hose out interior’ people use is really more figurative than literal.
So far as I can tell, the idea of hosing out an Element was either invented by the press or by owners misinterpreting the owner’s manual. I’ve been going through manuals and brochures, each one just says that the floor is durable and easy to clean, not that you should hose it out.
One of the first reviews a magazine talked about how nice it was that you could just hose it out. I think they even showed a cheeky picture at a car wash. Immediately Honda dealers started adding stickers to new cars saying DO NOT HOSE OUT THE INSIDE!!!
I just bought one with 250K miles on it as a first car for my son. It is an amazing design, easy to sleep in and reasonably comfortable. Also very easy to park, great turning circle and visibility.
How’s Jaguar/Land Rover doing these days?
Tata Motors is not just an offshoot of a tea company.
They are a global conglomerate https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tata_Group
Hi all, I’m an ex-employee of TATA MOTORS and I’ve been following my ex-employers growth. To all the people who don’t know much about the TATA’s and the TATA Group- google it and see the results. The TATA’s are Zoroastrians/Parsees who migrated to India from Persia( Iran)during the height of the Ottoman Empire who gave them 3 choices. Leave the Country, pay the jiziya( tax) or convert to Islam. They were smart and found it worth migrating to India. They had their demands which the then ruler of Gujarat,India was happy to accommodate them with. There was no looking back since then. It’s not only the TATA’s but many Parsee run organisations have made India proud. The list of Companies owned by the TATA Group is endless. Even Jaguar/Land Rover owners don’t know the facts of their vehicles. Back in 1984- TATA MOTORS had inked a deal with Honda Motor Corporation to manufacture the Accord, Prelude and Civic. The then Government during that time messed it up as they had done their deal with Suzuki Motor Corporation. There are heaps of facts I would love to share but I would run out of space.
Richard- this is great information! I had no idea about the stillborn Honda manufacturing deal. Absolutely TATA is a misunderstood or little-known company in many areas outside of India. I promise that it won’t stay that way.
CSRoad- admittedly using TATA as the manufacturing company in my hypothetical scenario might have been a bit of poor choice considering their size and experience. However, as I said, we still don’t have their cars on our shores, and we should find a way, especially with respect to bringing EVs into the reach of more people.
You can still find decent used Elements around, but they seem to be getting pricier. I’ve always loved the design of this car, and I agree it would make an excellent EV.
They’re more common than FJ Cruisers, but they’re definitely sought after more than almost any other truck-ish thing from the last twenty years. There was a brief moment where a few car companies tried to make truly useful, utilitarian SUV/CUV things just before everyone gave into the luxo-barge urge.
Lets Give it a Try- Elements are more common but a large number of the ones that haven’t been wrecked seem to have to-the-moon-and-back-a-few-times miles on the odometer. As utility vehicles they often weren’t pampered.
Most licensed designs are sold to a third party because the original manufacturer doesn’t do business where the demand exists, so this wouldn’t work for the Element.
We just need to convince Honda that it’s time to bring the Element back. Mixing Tata into all this is a waste of time and probably counterproductive because it suggests that we’re not willing to pay Honda prices for Honda products.
PaysOutAllNight- yes and no. When I lived in the UK as a kid around 1978-80 you could buy a Fiat 124-based Lada at the same the Fiat 131 was available (and essentially the exact same kind of car). There was a demand for a ‘new’ old Fiat for people that didn’t want to pay new Fiat prices, and Fiat was OK with not making it themselves and selling their cars alongside it.
I think it’s the same case here. The Element is/was really a niche vehicle, and one that Honda has had ample time to reintroduce but hasn’t, so why not let someone else make it?
However, would I rather see Honda bring back a new Element themselves? Of course!
And why not Honda themselves? Peugeot fully discontinued the 206 in Europe in 2006 and brought it back with a mild redesign three years later, after the Great Recession had people in need of cheap transportation.
Honda, bring back the Element as an EV!
Vinc- Absolutely! The Element really didn’t fit into any one category of car which made it such a success in my mind. Of course, most manufacturers like to make cars that fit into a specific niche to compete with similar cars.
So many choices:
I’d like the 1st gen Scion xB with a modern Prius PHEV drivetrain.
Ford C-Max but the European one with sliding doors and more battery only range.
Gen2 Chevy Volt as it was. IMO one of the best looking cars to wear the bowtie. That one was on my short list before all Hell broke loose.
1st gen Honda Insight but as a PHEV sports car/commuter. It should be everything the CR-Z should have been.
Exact (appearing) reproductions of air cooled Porsches from 1955-1997. Just bolt on the VIN from your backyard rustbucket and troll the purists.
Cheap Bastard- something like a Scion box is ideal since it has the two basic elements (excuse the pun) needed to make this work- lots of space for batteries and a relatively timeless look (a box is a box).
I’ve been shouting for a new Element for who knows how long. I’ll take it in EV, PHEV, or hybrid form. I just want one! I will order one new yesterday if it’s announced here. I remember even a few months back mentioning it was the perfect platform for electrification because it’s basically a skateboard already. Plus by going electric you’d get a frunk where you would have a space to store gear that you didn’t want bouncing around with your dirty gear after an adventure.
“a nation without much history in making ready-for-prime-time cars” This isn’t true. Companies like Tata and Mahindra have been successfully selling SUVs in India for decades. Tata wouldn’t need to borrow foreign tooling to build an EV.
Actually, what you’re describing was closer to the truth in the 80s and 90s — Honda partnered with Kinetic to make scooters, Kawasaki partnered with Bajaj to make motorcycles, Suzuki partnered with Maruti to make cars, etc. (The Maruti Esteem had a lot in common with the Geo Metro.)
Guarev- I’m very impressed with the designs I have seen coming out of India. I actually think there was a lot of potential in the Tata Nano. The concept was great, and I wish that the quality issues it experienced hadn’t put a damper on it.
I really don’t know what factors have contributed to it taking so long to see Indian cars here on the streets of the US, but if feeding off of a familiar design could get them here faster, I’d love to see it. American buyers really want it.
I thought the Tata Venture was the best looking micro van ever made. At least from the back 3/4 view. Kei van size.
I love my one box (Vanagon, Suzuki Carry Van Mk6 & 7) and two box stuff (Mk1 Fiesta and Golf/Rabbit, Yugo) and a few 3 box Fiats and the like. But this Venture has a nice tight little ass on it, and taillights like an Escalade. Ohh baby. Just needs some kind of boxer motor under the floor.
Something something safety, something something old tech. It’ll get made and bless very other country except the US. Honda will see the potential build a concept EV element that looks like the Honda-E and stop there.
Definitely seems like a good idea for an EV. The question is how well that idea will be executed.