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The Honda Element is the versatile box of motor vehicles, combining unique and practical features with a kind of military/utilitarian chic. Honda says the Element was designed specifically for young adventurers who need to haul wet or messy gear, like you can in a pickup, but with the security of an enclosed cargo area, like an SUV's, plus car-like performance and economy. Element provides all that. And it appeals to a much larger audience than just young men.
Element's durable, scratch-resistant interior is a big part of its charm. Its seats are designed to get wet. Inside and out, it looks like a little truck. But it's built with components from the Honda Civic, so it drives more like a car than a truck-based SUV.
The Element was all-new for 2003. Honda has made few changes since then. The 2005 models come with more standard equipment, including side-impact airbags for the top-of-the-line EX models.
The 2005 Honda Element comes with the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine used in the Accord. It's as sweet as any Honda engine, which means it revs freely and has good low-end torque.
As long as you shift gears at a respectable rpm the engine provides plenty of power with the manual transmission. And you'll want the manual transmission for its delightful shifter, mounted up in the dashboard, like in some of the latest rally cars. We didn't find the automatic transmission to be as much fun as the manual.
Element is a front-wheel-drive vehicle so there is a touch of torque steer, that tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration, but it isn't a concern. A bigger issue was wheelspin in the wet. Step on the gas, and it's easy to spin the front wheels on front-wheel-drive models, particularly in the rain. All-wheel drive cures this.
The ride quality is bouncy. From an engineering standpoint, the Honda Element is basically a re-bodied CR-V; and the CR-V is built on the same platform as the Honda Civic. The Element has a slightly wider track than the CR-V, which helps it handle curves better than we expected of such a tall vehicle. Speaking of tall, the ground clearance and ride height are sufficient for primitive roads, but the Element is not an off-road vehicle by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it supposed to be.
XM Satellite Radio is available and can be a great companion on long trips, delivering CD-quality sound nearly everywhere. Not having to change stations on a cross-country trip has distinct advantages. Around town we enjoy keeping up with the world on FoxNews, CNN and other 24-hour news stations, and sports junkies should appreciate the large selection of sports programming. Finding stations is made easier with RDS (radio data system), which identifies programming on the radio's display. (XM requires a subscription fee, which starts at about $10 per month.)
The Honda Element is a compelling option for drivers who want a genuine utility vehicle that behaves like a car. Its versatile interior makes the Element quite handy in certain situations, with its easy access and flat floor that's easy to clean. Looks are part of the attraction here. You'll either like the Element or hate it. We liked it and found it appeals to people of all ages.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California; with editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Redondo Beach.