Honda's new entry in the light-truck category is one of the freshest faces to hit the road in years. It also is the first Honda in a long time that needs an instruction manual--not for the driver, who probably will love the little Element, but for passersby who will wonder what it is and why it is needed.

For starters, this is a truck whose design muse was a refrigerator box. It is part of a new school of anti-style, looking cool because it doesn't (and succeeding where the unfortunate Pontiac Aztek failed).

Like a chocolate box, its plain, rectangular package hides lots of goodies inside. People who buy Elements will know this. Otherwise, they wouldn't be looking. Although, with prices expected to begin just north of $16,000 and top out at about $21,000, this trucklet might make the grade on price alone.

Honda's challenge, if the denizens of the Santa Cruz area in Northern California are any gauge, will be getting people to look. The company previewed the Element, due in dealer showrooms in mid-December, in the hills in and around that laid-back coastal university town earlier this summer. But in a place where tie-dyed T-shirts and rusty old VW vans abound, it was hard to get a glance.

When my driving partner and I did attract attention, down by the Santa Cruz pier, the most frequently asked question--Honda planners, take note--was "Is it one of those hybrids"?

To see if the Element actually is attractive to the audience Honda says it was built for, we took an unauthorized detour from the approved press route and zigged up into the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Honda, after all, says the Element was born of research conducted in college fraternity houses and at the X-Games. It is aimed at 20-ish males looking for a way to haul their surfboards and mountain bikes.

So what better place to test its draw than a university campus perched on a redwood-covered mountain laced with bike trails and overlooking a Pacific coastline noted for its surfing spots.

Around we drove, passing near-empty dorm complexes (it was summer, after all) and a dozen or so bus stops, most with a student or two patiently awaiting a bus and ignoring our silver-and-black Element.

It wasn't until the end of the loop that a bright-eyed cellular biology student named Stanley Ma, who had just waltzed out of the last test in the last class of his undergraduate career, saw it. His face lighted up with a grin, his thumb went up and, as we coasted up, he hollered: "Hey, cool wheels. Can I have a ride home?"

Ma, it turns out, is an avid surfer and said he spotted the possibilities of a truck that looks like the Element looks.

He was even more impressed once inside. "Really tight," he kept muttering on the short trip to his rented cottage in the quietly aging residential neighborhood just below the campus. "Tight," for those who don't know, is a good thing.

The Element, after all, has a pre tty interesting interior with, among other things, waterproof seat coverings, an instrument panel in blue, silver or green to match the interior colors, trays for cell phones, PDAs and MP3 players (the top-of-the-line model even has a special MP3 jack in the dashboard), five cup holders, two bottle holders and more interior cargo space with everything inside rolled up and stashed away--and pretty much everything inside does roll up and stash away--than anything else in its class.

The double doors on each side open barn-door-like from the center, and there is no fixed B pillar to divide the resulting gaping opening. (The B pillar is cleverly designed to be part of the leading edge of the rear door. It locks into the upper and lower frame sections to provide strength and an energy-absorbing safety element when the door is closed, but isn't there when the door opens.)

As a result, if you had a ramp you could literally ride your mountain bike, or your motorcycle, up into the Element's yawning interior once the front seats are pushed forward and the rear seats are either removed or folded up flat against the side walls. You also can cram a couple of 8-foot surfboards inside.

The Element's floor is flat and covered in washable plastic, the rear hatch is the clamshell type that provides maximum access, and a sunroof over the rear cargo area will pop up, or out altogether, to permit even longer or taller items to be stuffed inside.

Gary Evert, principal engineer on the Element team, said one use of the removable sunroof "is so that you can stand up inside [with your head poking out] and change into your swimsuit" without exposing your elements to the elements and whatever prying eyes are around.

The Element's easy-wipe interior also seems ideal for rolling parties. And for those who frequently use their cars for overnighters, the seats fold down and line up to make a pair of rather lumpy beds.

On the technical side, the Element is based on the Honda CR-V platform but is tweaked very nicely to provide ride and handling superior to the little SUVs.

Surprisingly for such a tall (74 inches) truck, the Element has little roll or sway on corners, thanks to a lowered rear suspension, stiffer springs and dampers, bigger sway bars and bigger, 16-inch wheels with 215/70R rubber. It also stops nicely, thanks to 11.1-inch disc brakes, vented in front and solid in the rear, augmented by an anti-lock braking system.

Unfortunately, the stopping power and suspension finesse come in a vehicle with little in the way of oomph. The Element's 2.4-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder engine cranks out 160 horsepower and 161 pounds-feet of torque, sufficient to get it up the freeway onramp and into the flow of traffic, but far from providing performance anywhere close to thrilling.

Because it is a Honda, albeit a truck, the Element is expected to boast fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon around town, 23 mpg on the highway. And Honda engine engineer Gil Castillo says it will meet California's Low Emissions Vehicle II standards, which don't take effect until 2004.

In basic dress, the Element comes with a five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. But an all-wheel-drive version is available, as is a four-speed automatic borrowed straight from the CR-V. All-wheel drive with manual transmission won't be out until next spring, however.

Final words: Honda designed this for the youth set, but its versatility, fuel economy and low pricing are just as likely to attract older buyers who can get over its unusual looks. It won't attract those who need to tow trailers or lord it over everyone else on the road--they'll be looking at the local Hummer dealer--but it is an intriguing, fun-to-drive alternative to the ubiquitous small SUV.


Honda Element


Expected to range from about $16,000 to $21,000.

Engine and drive train:

2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder with dual overhead cams, rated at 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 161 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission.

Dimensions (front-wheel-drive models):

Headroom (front/rear): 43.3/38.0 in.

Legroom (front/rear): 41.0/39.1 in.

Shoulder room (front/rear): 57.1/52.2 in.

Cargo area (rear seats in use/folded/removed): 25.1/70.1/74.6 cu. ft.

Passenger area (front/total): 58.6/103.6 cu. ft.


Turning circle: 34.9 ft.

Wheelbase: 101.4 in.

Length: 166.5 in.

Height: 74 in.

Width: 71.5 in.

Ground clearance: 6.9 in.

Towing capacity: 1,500 lbs.

Fuel economy (city/highway), Honda estimate:

Manual transmission: 21/23 mpg

Automatic: 21/25 mpg