At first look, the 2009 Honda Element seems like the perfect kid-mobile. Virtually every surface in the Element is water-resistant and wipeable. The floor is rubberized and has no cracks or grime-collecting slots. There are tons of cubbies for storage, and there's almost nothing in the car that the kids could destroy. Even the doors work like prison gates to lock the little monsters, um, I mean, angels inside. It sounds perfect, but it's not.

The Element's center-opening, swing-wide doors, aka suicide doors, meant my kids couldn't get in or out of the car by themselves. When both front and rear doors are open there's a lot of space for getting in the car, but I had to reach around the door frame, which sits right at the front edge of the rear seat, to help buckle the kids in. I was grateful I didn't have to schlep an infant-safety seat up and around the frame to the seat. It would be a back injury waiting to happen. Those doors are the one element of the Element that completely destroys any possibility of the Element getting my stamp of approval.

The doors are such a huge disappointment because almost everything else about the Element is great. It's a fun, practical vehicle, as long as you don't have anyone climbing in or out of the backseat very often. It's a four-seater that transforms into a cargo carrier in minutes, which is fantastic as long as your cargo isn't kids.

The Element is fun to drive, with a perky four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive that gets an EPA-estimated 18/23 mpg city/highway. I managed to get a combined 21 mpg during my test drive. It handled curves with ease and rode fairly smoothly, with only a bit of road noise to annoy. Actually, I had to go looking for the road noise since the Element EX comes with a great stereo that includes a big, fat subwoofer to easily drown out irritations. Even the kind that comes from the backseat!

The Element is by no means a luxury vehicle. While you can get an audio package and a navigation system, there's no leather option, sunroof, rear entertainment or power liftgate. If you want bells and whistles, this isn't your car.

Exterior

The Element isn't a pretty-looking vehicle; it's not even trying to be pretty. In fact, some call it pretty ugly. I think it's kind of cool-looking in a rugged, utilitarian way. It's basically a box on wheels. The roof line is slightly rounded, which takes some of the boxiness away but not by much. The black-colored roof, rocker panels, side mirrors and door handles gives the Element a sporty, two-tone look. There's no blingy chrome to be found here.

From the front, the Element has clean, strong lines that are accentuated by the black bumper and window trim. The grille is small and dominated by the Honda logo and large headlights. The headlights narrow as they move toward the car's corners.

The Element's rear window is huge, which allows for great visibility. The cargo area is accessed by a split liftgate. The top opens upward, and the smaller bottom piece creates a tailgate. I usually left the tailgate up and lifted things over it.

The Element sits higher off the ground than a sedan, but climbing into it was no problem for me. However, my kids struggled a little to get in it.

It's the doors that really take all the family-friendliness out of the Element. The front doors open normally, but to open the rear door, you have to open the front door first, which doesn't seem like a big deal but it is. It's a really big deal.

The problem is that kids can't use the passenger-side door without an adult. Sure, they can open both doors and get in, but they can't close the front door once they're in the backseat. I had to do it. It also means that kids can't open the passenger-side rear door from the inside. Someone has to open the front door first.

I'm so grateful that I tested the Element during the summer when drop-offs were at a minimum. I can't imagine how unpopular I'd have become in the carpool lane at school had I been test driving this car. That also wouldn't have been pretty.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Not Really

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times

Interior

The Element is meant to be rugged and used by people who get dirty, so all of the surfaces can be wiped down. This is great for families and the eternally drippy sippy-cups, sand-filled shoes and dropped fruit snacks that come with them. The Element virtually dares kids to spill stuff. "Go ahead, drop that chocolate milk. I can take it!"

The seats don't slide on runners, so there's nowhere for gunk on the floor to accumulate. The rear seats can fold and store on the sides of the cabin. This isn't something I'd want to do every day, but it's doable. Storing the rear seats makes cleaning out the Element is a breeze. Or it would be, if I ever got around to cleaning it. On the downside, there's nothing to stop smaller items in the cargo area from rolling into the rear seating area. Dropped toys can quickly end up out of reach and spare water bottles can become a safety hazard.

The seats are comfy, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable. The other three seats recline manually. My kids got quite a kick out of reclining their seats while we were driving, which meant that their seat belts didn't always fit properly. Fortunately, that trick got old quickly and they resumed their mom-approved positions (after some, um, gentle persuasion). Since the Element only seats four, everyone has plenty of room. The rear cupholders are right at seat level, instead of out of reach in the door or on the floor.

There are tons of cubbies, bins, shelves and hidden ceiling compartments. Although I'm sure it's not what the designers had in mind, I found that the floor space between the front console and subwoofer was the perfect place to drop my large mommy-purse; this kept it out from under little feet. Of course, it probably did some damage to the sound quality, but I never noticed a thing.

Rugged as it is, there's little in the way of luxury to be found in the Element. What you do get in the EX is a great stereo system with XM Satellite Radio, USB hookup for an MP3 player and seven speakers. A navigation system is available for $1,700, and it's the same system found in the rest of the Honda lineup. It's easy to use and comes with a great LCD touch-screen, voice recognition and steering-wheel-mounted controls. What you don't get in the Element is a leather option, automatic climate control, a sunroof or Bluetooth technology. I can live without most of it, but hands-free phone operation is a must, especially in L.A.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Safety

The Element is a 2009 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. To earn this award, a car must receive the top score - Good - in front, side and rear crash tests and come with standard electronic stability control.

Every safety feature in the Element is standard, except for the backup camera that comes with the navigation package. It has four-wheel antilock brakes, stability control and traction control. There are six airbags, including side-impact and side curtain airbags for both rows of seats.

The seatbelts have pre-tensioners with pyrotechnic retractors that remove any slack in the belt during a significant collision. I didn't love the rear seat belts because the receptors were floppy, making it harder for little ones to buckle up by themselves. The Latch connectors are easy to find and use. They sit under a plastic cover when not in use. Once the cover is removed, they're in plain sight. That doesn't happen very often.

Our booster seat sat just right on the mostly flat rear seat. The reclining seats make it easy to fit any kind of child-safety seat, including rear-facing varieties.

FAMILY LIFESTAGE

In Diapers: It's hard to load kids into the backseat because door frame sits at the front of the rear seats.

In School: Getting into the Element is a climb for little legs, and the suicide doors won't allow for easy carpool lane drop-offs.

Teens: Teens will love its rugged styling and powerful stereo system.