Honda learned a valuable lesson when it created the Element in 2003 to attract young buyers: You can ask, but you can't tell, youth what it wants to buy.
Element arrived as a compact sport-utility, though crossover seems more apropos for its SUV function in the look of a boxy wagon.
It took a novel approach to design--look different than anything else on the road with front and rear bumpers, lower fenders and rocker panels consisting of gray plastic rather than body colored sheet-metal--to cater to youth.
Other novelties included swing-back, or suicide, rear doors, and rear seats that folded along the walls rather than folding flat or flipping forward for more cargo room.
Because youth tend to be more outdoorsy than the rest of the people on this planet, the interior was covered with washable rubber mats rather than carpeting.
And you got the choice of front- or all-wheel-drive.
Element has sold well--a steady 50,000 to 60,000 units annually. But the average buyer is 41, meaning a number of 50- and 60-somethings have made it their vehicle of choice as well.
Honda considers it vital to get youth into its family, so for 2006 it added the Element EX-P, which gives those gunmetal panels a coat of body-color paint. Front and rear bumpers, however, are now black, along with the rocker panels and wide trim along both sides of the roof.
But the EX-P signaled a change was coming.
At the New York Auto Show this month, Honda unveiled the Element SC prototype, a peek at the 2007 SC production model that replaces the EX-P this fall.
For 2007, only the base Element LX will retain the gray plastic. The EX and SC will have body-colored panels--without black bumpers and rockers.
"It's what youth told us was missing," noted Dick Colliver, executive vice president of Honda.
"The SC injects a new dimension of sophistication into the lineup," he said. "The current Element is a bit spartan, the new SC will be the style-conscious, upscale urban brother of Element."
We tested the EX-P. It offers those thick black rubberized floor mats so you can wash away the dirt, sand and water accumulated from a visit to the beach.
"The SC won't have the hose-down rubber mats," said John Mendel, senior vice president of Honda. "The SC will be more upscale for broader appeal."
But changes are needed beyond body-colored panels.
When Element first came out, the second row seats lifted up against the side wall to increase rear cargo room.
Novel, but time consuming.
And because they extend into the cargo hold, the folded seats make storing tall or wide items a chore. Too bad the SC doesn't go with the more traditional flip and fold seats.
The rear doors swing back suicide style. Another novelty, but for everyday usage they simply add to load time. You have to open the front doors to expose the handles on the rear doors in order to open them. So you have to grab two handles to open them, a challenge particularly when your hands are full. They close in the opposite way: Rear door first then the front.
Element ride isn't typical Honda smooth. You feel abrasions in the road, especially those in back, who sit almost directly over the rear wheels.
Element is a tall box, and though you don't feel top heavy, you suffer lean in corners and turns. You can hear the tires scrub against the pavement in sharp turns. And the steering takes too much effort. You swing wide into parking places rather than dart between the lines.
The suspension isn't tuned for high-performance handling with pinpoint accuracy at the track, rather for the everyday drudgery of commuting to work and back.
While the EX-P is certainly an upgrade from the regular Element, the SC is a step up from that, with a 3-inch lower suspension to sit closer to the pavement and 2-inch lower roof to make turns and corners less cumbersome.
While narrow 16-inch radials are standard now, the SC will feature larger tires designed for better handling. They will not, however, be as big as the 21-inch radials on the prototype.
Honda suggests the SC will be almost sports-car like in its precision moves thanks to a sports-tuned suspension and those larger tires.
Though the EX-P comes with anti-lock brakes as standard, have to feel the SC would be worth the wait because it will add stability control and side-curtain air bags as standard, items not even offered now. That's two big pluses for the future.
It still will have those fold-against-the-wall rear seats and suicide doors, however.
A major and needed improvement is that the SC will offer a 166-horsepower version of the 2.4-liter that now achieves 156 h.p. And it will get a 5-speed automatic instead of the 4-speed.
No word on the SC yet, but if Honda found a way to get 10 more horsepower out of a 4-cylinder that's a little slow on the uptake--as well as on the incline and into the passing lane--it surely will be able to increase the mileage rating.
The EX-P is rated at 21 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway.
One reason for the lower-than-expected mileage is that the real-time all-wheel-drive hardware adds a couple hundred pounds. Real time means it operates in front-wheel-drive until wheel slippage is detected and AWD automatically engaged.
The EX-P is priced at $22,325 and comes with air conditioning; power mirrors, windows and door locks (but manual seats); rear-window defroster, 270-watt AM/FM radio with CD player and MP3 jack; and 16-inch, all-season radials.
Nice touches include an open or removable glass skylight over the rear seat and cargo hold.
But the lever to open it is inconveniently located at the back of the window. Practice your reach.
One benefit of the tall roof line is that it creates more headroom than you'll ever need. And legroom front and rear is surprisingly large for a compact. Rear-seat occupants can stretch their legs without hitting the front seat.
There also are waterproof seat covers, front and rear power outlets, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, stowage holders built into all doors, an extended tray along the lower portion of the dash to hold small items, cupholders/cellphone holder between the two front seats, a pull-out coin holder in the lower dash to the left of the steering column and a large storage compartment built into the roof above the rearview mirror.
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2006 Honda Element EX-P AWD
Price as tested: $22,325*
Wheelbase: 101.4 inches
Length: 170.2 inches
Engine: 2.4-liter, 156-h.p. 4-cylinder
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
CITY 21x m.p.g.
HWY 24 m.p.g.
Base price: $22,325
Add $550 for freight.*
More stylish with body-colored panels and door handles replacing dull gray plastic.
Can't be accused of lookalike or cookie-cutter design.
Roomy cabin and ample cargo capacity.
Rear seats fold against side walls for more room.
Decent price fully equipped.
Not much oomph from the 4.
Would rather fold seats over than pile them against the walls.
Design upgrade and more potent 4 coming for special SC version this fall.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.