- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

To appreciate the 2003 Honda Element, you have to understand it. Because if you don't get it, you won't get it.
Reactions are all over the map everything from excited admiration to a scurrilous charge that it's a minibus. By current lights in the motor vehicle industry, the all-new Element falls into the crossover category, which means it is neither a car nor a truck, and not even a true sport utility vehicle.
It is, however, unique. Square and funky, it is designed to appeal to active, outdoorsy types, mostly on the youthful end of the human scale. They constitute the so-called Generation Y, born after 1977, who currently make up more than one-fifth of the U.S. population and are expected to assume increasing importance as new-vehicle buyers.
The Element is something like Honda's popular CR-V, a small, car-based SUV. It is built off the same platform and has the same engine and drivetrain a 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine linked to either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission.
But the resemblance ends there. Where the CR-V is a civilized charmer, the Element resembles a diminutive Hummer wannabe. It's designed to get down and dirty, with center-opening side doors and a clamshell hatchback to ease loading of grungy gear.
The styling is square, squarer and squarest, with massive plastic panels covering various body parts presumably to absorb bumps and scratches as the owner traverses testy terrain.
But it's not a sport ute. The basic setup employs front-wheel drive, with four-wheel drive available. But it's a full-time setup, with no low range, so the Element is not intended as an off-roader in the same category as, say, the Jeep Liberty.
It's designed more for fringe areas surfer beaches, parking areas for mountain bikers and rock climbers, wilderness campgrounds and river bends. It can carry kayaks and backpacks, or four persons out for a 10K run.
The back seats set up for two persons, not three can be folded and flipped up to hang on the sides like a squirrel on a tree. Or they can be removed completely, opening up more than 76 cubic feet of cargo space.
With the seats in place, there's 104 cubic feet of passenger room more than in some midsize cars with 25 cubic feet left over for gear, which is more commodious than the trunks in big luxury cars.
A base Element DX, with the five-speed manual gearbox, has a sticker price of just $16,560. That includes such amenities as power windows and door locks, but not air conditioning or cruise control. Following Honda's usual practice, such options as air conditioning and remote locking are installed by dealers.
The DX also lacks a radio, but it is prewired for the installation of a stereo and speakers. Honda figures young folks on a tight budget will want to pick out their own system. Both the DX and the better-equipped EX come in either front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, with either the manual or automatic transmission.
The tested Element was the top-of-the-line EX with all-wheel drive and the automatic transmission. It had a suggested delivered price of $21,310, which included an eardrum-assaulting, 270-watt, seven-speaker stereo system with a CD player and a built-in plug for MP3 players again, a nod to the young folks. Other features included alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, cruise control and a removable glass sunroof.
The sunroof is located over the back seats, which makes it of dubious value for fresh-air minded drivers.
But with the glass removed, you can vertically carry tall objects like surfboards and artificial palm trees.
The Element is no tire smoker when it comes to performance, especially with the automatic transmission. The 160-horsepower engine must move nearly two tons of Element with a driver and one passenger aboard. Its curb weight of 3,595 pounds is almost 250 pounds more than the similarly-sized CR-V.
Things get marginally better with the five-speed manual transmission, which gives it an elemental sporting feel. On the front-drive models, it is even possible to chirp the tires in second gear.
Moreover, the Element has surprisingly good handling for a vehicle so tall and ungainly-looking, thanks to a fairly sophisticated suspension system combined with fat, all-season tires on 16-inch wheels.
Inside, there's a urethane-coated floor for easy cleanup, along with waterproof upholstery that nonetheless breathes and is comfortable in both cold and hot weather. The seats up front are firm and easy on the torso, but without much lateral support.
Out back, the seating position is high and, on the EX, the passengers sit directly beneath the glass sunroof.
Although the center-opening rear doors greatly facilitate the loading of cargo, they are narrow at the bottom. The floor also is fairly high off the ground, which means that back seat passengers have to step up and squeeze a bit to climb in, then must poke their feet out and slide down to get out. It's not a fun exercise for a woman in a tight skirt.

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