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Utilitarian is the name for the Honda Element

August 28, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

Utility. It's every sport-utility vehicle's middle name, and it's at the heart of the Honda Element. One look at this Honda's boxy body and you get the idea that the accent is on function, not fashion.

To get elemental about Element, you have to start opening doors. This is a vehicle that is bought from the inside out. Starting in the back, Element is accessed through a two-piece tailgate. Though not as convenient as a one-piece liftgate, once open, Element has a wide, flat floor with a low lift-over for easy loading.

Up above on all-wheel-drive models is a large, removable skylight, over

the rear section. The reason the opening is in back takes a little

explaining. Honda's target market for Element is young, outdoor actives, who might be tossing anything from mountain bikes to surf boards in back. The idea was that surfers could stand up, pop their head out of the open roof and change comfortably in/out of a wet suit (the darkly tinted glass

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below protecting their modesty). Fair enough, but a sunroof up front would make more sense for more people.

Honda's objective for the cargo hold was to create a big space that's low maintenance. Big it is. Those surfers could fit a 10-foot board inside if they folded the passenger seat flat forward. Cargo capacity ranges from 25.1 cubic feet to as much as 74.6 cubic feet, depending on how many seats are folded up. Yes, that's up, not down. Honda's second-row seats (no third row is available) flip up and secure to the side wall, or they can be removed altogether for maximum storage.

The Element's floor is made of a urethane coated plastic. It's textured for traction, resists scratches and spills, and damp wipes clean easily. From a passenger room perspective, the Element's second row takes a back seat to no one. Care must be taken while ducking under the roof and stepping over the slightly high floor, but once in, you'll find room enough to fit almost any sized person comfortably. The seats even fold flat back if you fancy a quick snooze.

How you get to the second aisle is key to the Element's utility. The front doors on this four-door Honda open conventionally, but the back doors look and act more like those you'd find on a stretch cab pickup. They're half sized, rear hinged and can be opened only when the front doors are likewise. Swing all the doors open and you see that there's no "B" pillar between the rows. That means there is an unusually clear, 55-inch-wide opening for loading cargo through the sides. Up front, it's adult-sized room for two.

Controls and switchgear are a quick study. Element is one of many Honda models to have sprouted shifters from the dashboard. The five-speed stick has the advantage of not taking up floor space and is easy to reach.

Front- and all-wheel-drive versions are offered in DX, LX and EX trim levels. Prices start at $16,100, and a nicely equipped EX all-wheel-drive model, like my tester, has a sticker price of $21,040, including delivery.

One engine and two transmissions are available. The motor is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, matched to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The Honda four makes 160 horsepower, 161 lbs.-ft. of torque, and feels nicely matched to the vehicle.

Element's boxy dimensions don't make for particularly good aerodynamics, but fuel economy is pretty respectable for a utility vehicle. My AWD five-speed got an estimated 21 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway.

Element is not an off-road vehicle. Honda's Real Time all-wheel-drive system is designed to boost the driver's grip in bad weather conditions. It adds traction, without adding the bulk of a traditional, 4x4 chassis. Real Time is basically front-wheel drive, adding power to the rear tires when needed to maintain optimal traction. The system works invisibly, requiring no input from the driver.

Though pitched at younger drivers, as many Elements are being driven by Baby Boomers as by the Boomers' babies. It seems that this Honda is as suited to hauling antique sideboards as it is surfboards. The Honda pedigree and flexible floor plan should appeal to drivers of any age. Element may not be beautiful, but it's as practical as a Swiss army knife.

Copyright Motor Matters, 2004

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