Orlando Sentinel's view

A colleague is not a fan of the Kleenex-box styling of the 2003 Honda Element: “But I’m sort of reluctant to say anything. Honda so seldom takes any chances with styling, so when they finally do, you really don’t want to discourage them.”

I know what he means. One look at the 2003 Civic sedan, for instance, will tell you that Honda’s styling department is as conservative as they come. But one look at the wonky Element will tell you that, well, they’re trying, bless their hearts.

The Element is based on the more sophisticated CR-V, sharing a basic platform and the 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine. But the Element is targeted at the “young, active lifestyle” market, the reason why most every photo Honda has of the Element shows it on the beach or in the mountains. The reason why Honda calls it a “dorm room on wheels!” The reason why the floor is rubber – no carpet is available – and you can actually “hose out” the interior.

Our test vehicle was an early production model, serial number 000007, and though the fit and finish was not quite up to Honda’s production specifications, it allowed us to experience a week’s worth of real-world exposure to the Element.

It was an up-level EX model, meaning it came with air conditioning, a stereo with a compact disc player, remote locking and cruise control. There are no factory options. Base price was $19,450, and with shipping, the bottom line was $19,910. Honda advertises that the Element DX starts at $16,100, or $16,560 with shipping, but that is for a hair-shirt model with no air or stereo. Don’t expect to see many Elements on sale for less than $17,000 for a while.

At the other end is the Element EX with four-wheel-drive; that model, with automatic transmission (no manual until spring on that one), will cost more than $21,000. It is Honda’s “Real Time” four-wheel-drive system, made for slippery pavement, not serious off-roading.

The Element weighs 3,456 pounds, but feels heavier. Acceleration is good, but as is the case with the CR-V, most other small SUVs offer a V-6 engine, and Honda doesn’t. The engine and transmission work well together to maximize available power.

Inside, the Element is rustic, but doesn’t feel that way. The front seats, covered with water-resistant cloth, are comfortable. Front and rear seats fold up, out and down in any number of configurations – actually Honda says there is a number, 65 – which make this a remarkably versatile vehicle. The front doors open normally, but the back doors open front-to-back, clamshell-like, and the front doors must be open before you can open the rear doors. The tailgate is conventional.

Although hardly nimble, the Element corners with moderate precision. The highway ride is better than you’d expect, though – as one might deduct from the tall profile – strong crosswinds tend to move it around a bit.

For less than $20,000, the test Element EX is a lot for the money. Honda’s reputation for dependability and high resale value should make this one of the season’s hottest new entries. But logic and experience suggest that although the young-active market will embrace it, so will the forty and fifty-somethings looking for an inexpensive, versatile second vehicle.

Base price: $19,450.

Price as tested: $19,910.

EPA rating: 21 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.

Details: Front-wheel-drive sport ute with a 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower 4-cylinder engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission.

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