Rugged new SUV by Honda comes with all the bells and whistles

Friday, May 9, 2003

Anyone who's taken a chemistry class knows an element is a substance that cannot be reduced into a simpler substance by chemical means. An element is about as simple as it gets. So when I picked up Honda's funky new SUV from Wieser Honda in Cape Girardeau for this review, I had a few preconceptions.

I figured this boxy all-wheel-driver would be just a cheap, boring knockoff of its famous look-alike: the Hummer H2.

Well, dear reader, there's nothing elemental about the Honda Element! This little buggy is full of surprises.

Controversial design

The first surprise is in the styling department. Honda went out on a limb with this one. It's as they told the design team, "OK, we've got everyone drooling over our beautiful new Accord with its swoopy compound curves and ultra low-drag aerodynamic shape. Now, gentlemen, let's give 'em something at the opposite end of the scale." The designers apparently succeeded, because this truck is blunt, tall and wide and comes equipped with "suicide doors" and plastic fenders. According to the EPA, the Element is a truck, even though it's derived from the reliable and competent Civic, as is the highly regarded CRV, another Honda SUV introduced a couple of years ago.

Don't even consider an Element if you don't like being noticed. There is nothing else on the planet like it. You can pay nearly triple for some other SUVs, but I don't think you'll get triple the stares, smiles and questions. This is not the vehicle for robbing banks or smuggling drugs. I couldn't decide if I liked the way the Element looks, so I deferred the problem to a local authority who is never wrong about such things: my wife. "It's ugly," she said after I took her out in it and bought her dinner.

"Ouch, that hurts!" said I. "A good date never insults a guy's car. Don't you know that?" The next morning my wife spent an unusually long time retrieving the newspaper. She was inspecting the Element in the light of a new day. "I've changed my mind," she said, handing me the newspaper. "It's adorable!" So there you have it. According to my authority, the longer you look at the Element, the better it looks.

Creature comforts

The Element comes in two models: the basic DX and the gussied-up EX. I'm betting there will be relatively few DXs sold, as these models are pretty (pun intended) elemental. The EXs are equipped with air conditioning, ABS brakes, alloy wheels, power side mirrors, cruise control, arm rest for the driver and a kick-butt sound system, among other things.

The interior is replete with holders of every description. Cups, sunglasses, maps, magazines, coins, cell phones -- they all have nifty holders. The Honda brochure says the Element was designed with the "dorm room in mind." Indeed, Honda says the typical Element buyer will be a rugged, adventure-seeking, outdoor-type male. A bungee-jumping, mountain biking, surfboard-waxing CPA, I suppose. To ensure that the interior can easily be cleaned up after a mission into the outback, it is totally devoid of carpet and traditional upholstery. On the seats you'll find a high-tech waterproof fabric, and the floor is a slick, wipe-down material . Speaking of seats, they are perhaps the most innovative feature. They slide and tilt and recline and pivot in more ways than I could count. And Honda has more than 60 accessories for the Element.

Motivation

Other reviewers have harped about the lack of V6 power in the Element, not because performance is lacking, but because the thing just looks too big for a four-cylinder motivator. But fear not, horsepower fiends. Forthright application of the go-pedal produces a surprising kick in the pants. My unscientific test shows 60 miles per hour arrive in just over 10 seconds with two souls on board. This is a big four-banger that, thanks to its variable valve timing, produces a remarkable 160 horsepower from its 2.4 liters of displacement. There are some V6s that don't produce that kind of power! And it's a smooth, liner power, with lots of torque around 2,000 rpm, which is where the engine runs at normal cruising speed.

The Element has a firm ride. Not harsh but not as plush as the Accord. The steering is perfect. The brakes are excellent. The ride is quiet. There is no heavy leaning in the corners. The four-wheel drive system is seamless. There is no low-range gearing for serious off-roading, but I found the automatic-equipped Element a willing companion for 99 percent of the SUV buyers out there. Which bring us back to the big question: Is the Element ugly or adorable?

Steve Robertson, owner of Robertson Photography, is a car enthusiast and was formerly a photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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