- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

No one is going to mistake the new 2003 Honda Element as a "cute ute."

In fact, Honda's newest sport utility vehicle could be described as an antidote for previous, entry-level SUVs that were styled with pleasant looks to attract and not offend neophyte SUV buyers.

You see, the Element flaunts its boxy shape and ugly-duckling mix of body cladding and composite body panels.

It's also one of the best deals on the market in terms of price per cubic foot of SUV interior volume.

With a minimum of 128.7 cubic feet of room inside without removing the rear seats and a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,560, the Element's price per cubic foot of volume inside averages under $130.

This compares with $138.78 per cubic foot in Honda's previous lowest-priced SUV, the CR-V which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $19,360.

And it compares with $160.09 per cubic square foot of interior volume in the competing 2003 Nissan Xterra, with starting price of $18,539.

Furthermore, the Element attracts attention whenever its side doors are opened.

The front doors have normal, front-hinged operation. But the back doors open clamlike with rear hinges, and there's no stationary pillar blocking entry and exit to the back seats.

Still, Element buyers had best be ready to do without some things.

There's no carpet on the flat floor of this low-priced SUV, for example. Instead, the floor is utilitarian, water- and scratch-resistant, with raised plastic nubs on it, and can be washed out with a wet cloth.

Front seats are covered in a cold-feeling, waterproof fabric, and rear seats have vinyl coverings.

The base Element DX doesn't include air conditioning as standard equipment. And remote keyless entry is an extra on all models.

There's seating for four inside, not the usual five seats found in other SUVs.

And the Element is powered by a four-cylinder engine that can come across as buzzy when stressed.

If all this sounds like an unusual SUV package, well, it is.

Honda officials don't expect the odd-looking Element to attract baby boomers or younger families. They're counting on the youngest buyers, Generation Y, to become a major force in the auto market and believe they're searching for something new and fresh just for them.

Hence, the Element, whose target buyer is a 22-year-old male who's single, a college graduate and active with hobbies and friends.

For this buyer, Honda officials have described the Element as something akin to a room on wheels. And you know, inside the Element, I sort of felt like I was driving a squarish, tall room down the road.

The ride isn't cushioned or refined by any means. I felt road bumps regularly. On serious road bumps, the ride could be harsh. There's plenty of road noise, too.

But the front-drive Element that was the tester held the road in aggressive curves with more gusto than I expected. The unnervy, tippy feeling that I figured would come quickly in this 74-inch-tall vehicle didn't really materialize as I had feared.

The Element's platform is modified from the CR-V and the Element's track is wider.

The front suspension uses MacPherson struts, while a double wishbone does duty at the rear. Tires, rather plain-looking, are all-season 16-inchers.

The Element's only engine a 2.4-liter, double-overhead camshaft, four-cylinder uses Honda's intelligent Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Lift Control (i-VTEC) to get the most performance it can for low rpm torque and higher rpm horsepower.

Peak horsepower here is 160, which compares with 143 horses in the four-cylinder-powered Xterra and 127 in the base Ford Escape with four-cylinder. Note, though, that both competitors also offer higher-power six-cylinders.

The Element's maximum torque is 161 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm, which is better than the 135 at 4,500 in the Escape four-cylinder. The Xterra four-cylinder has maximum 154 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

But I frequently heard the four-cylinder buzzing and straining when I'd slam on the accelerator to try to get past another driver quickly.

Towing capacity for the Element is 1,500 pounds, and preliminary fuel economy ratings for the test, two-wheel-drive model with smooth-shifting automatic are 21 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

The Element also will be offered with Honda's Real Time four-wheel drive, which uses hydraulic pumps to determine wheel slip and transfer power to wheels that aren't slipping.

I guess I'd call the Element interior funky. The vertical side windows reflect the light of other vehicle headlights at times, which can be distracting at first.

The expressive circular gauges in the instrument cluster seem to have a modern flair, and front and rear seats can all be reclined flat to provide a lengthy sleeping area.

I actually preferred riding in the rear seats, which seemed to be positioned a bit higher than the front seats. Legroom back there is generous, too an unexpected 39.1 inches.

This compares with second-row legroom of 32.8 inches in the Xterra and 36.4 inches in the Escape.

The Element's headroom also impresses. In front, there's 43.3 inches vis-a-vis a maximum 38.6 inches in the Xterra and 40.4 inches in the Escape.

Back-seat riders in the Element get a minimum of 38 inches, which is a tad more than the 37.8 inches in the Xterra but less than the 39.2 inches in the Escape.

Note that the rear-door windows in the Element don't open, except just a crack, a la the manual back windows found in some minivans.

But the rear seats can be folded neatly onto the interior sides or removed altogether to maximize cargo room.

The pillars on each side of the Element windshield are large and often blocked my view of pedestrians as I made turns at intersections.

The waterproof material on the front passenger seat made my purse, books and magazines slide off easily when I'd stop quickly.

The test Element had a problem with radio reception. I could get only a few local stations; the rest of the time, I got only static.

There's wind noise in the Element at highway speeds, and it's a long reach down for someone my size 5 feet 4 to a coffee cup or soda placed in the front cup holders. These cup holders, you see, are mounted down at the floor between the front seats, not in some fancy center console.

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