The Detroit Newspapers's view

There are big changes coming for the Honda Element in the ’07 model year, with a major seat redesign in the works, as well as the first model with carpeting and the addition of two important standard safety features.

In the meantime, the Japanese automaker jazzed up the compact crossover’s somewhat nerdy look for 2006, stripping away some of the signature black body cladding, while adding new colors and a new exterior with the EX-P trim level.

We tested an EX-P model with XM Satellite Radio included at no charge. Bottom line: $22,875, including destination.

SHE: Our next-door neighbor has a Honda Element, and I’ve gotten so used to seeing the boxy vehicle all swathed in that ugly black plastic that I was shocked to see the EX-P version show up in our driveway with monochromatic body panels. It shows off the Element’s square shape to its best advantage now, if you think that’s a good idea. The EX-P model reminds me of men who suddenly ditch the toupee and show off their bald heads. It’s a bit of a shock to the system at first. But I like it, and I like the new “tangerine metallic” paint job on our test car.

HE: This is kind of a disgusting mental image, but think of it as kind of a striptease for the Element. And I actually like it without the “toupee.” I always thought of it as kind of a girl car, but the new EX-P looks and feels a bit more macho.

SHE: I almost hate to tell you what I did with our test Element. I hauled pansies.

HE: Oh, jeez, I can see the headline now. Element: A great pansy hauler. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind when they redesigned it. Couldn’t you at least have carried cement or even shrubs?

SHE: No problem. That urethane-coated floor is a fabulous idea and, combined with the waterproof seat fabric, makes the Element a true wash-and-wear vehicle. It may feel too stripped down for some people — although Honda has added new details for ’06 like steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Still, the Element really shines in the parking lot at Lowe’s. It’s great if you are hauling flats of flowers or mountain bikes. You can fold the rear seats against the walls to make quite a bit of room in the back. And there are lots of clever storage cubbies, including a big plastic mesh one in the overhead console.

HE: Yeah, but it still seats only four adults. I was disappointed, too, that our Ohio-built test vehicle was not as nicely put together as you’d expect from Honda. The trim on the A pillars was wavy and looked sloppy. And I know you had some gripes in the safety area.

SHE: Yes. Honda has made a big deal about loading up most of its models with excellent standard safety features, including side curtain air bags and stability control. So I was puzzled as to why the ’06 Element didn’t get either of those features. But it turns out that the location of the seat belts at the roof points means you can’t install side curtain air bags. Next year, when the seats gets redesigned, the side curtains will be standard, Honda says. So if that’s a priority, you should wait.

HE: I hope they give the Element a bump in horsepower, too, because that in-line four-cylinder engine is a bit anemic, especially at highway speeds. Still, the powertrain combination — our test vehicle was equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission — returns fairly good gas mileage for a crossover, with 21 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway.

SHE: Driving the Element feels a bit strange. The combination of the square shape and the driver’s upright seating position makes you feel like you’re behind the wheel of a school bus. Yet, for such a small vehicle, it has a pretty big turning circle and isn’t always easy to angle park in tight spaces. But because it’s a car-based utility vehicle, the ride is fairly smooth, and your flats of pansies won’t get tossed around.

HE: Your cookies either. The Element has a lot to recommend it, especially for someone who wants a no-nonsense utilitarian hauler. And that’s exactly what it is, no matter how much tangerine metallic paint you smear on it or how much cladding you strip off.

Anita and Paul Lienewrt are partners in Lienert & Lienert, an automotive information services company.

2006 Honda Element 4WD EX-P

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-passenger sport-utility vehicle.
Price: Base, $22,875 (inc. $550 destination charge); as tested, $22, 875.
Engine: 2.4-liter I-4; 156-hp;160 lb-ft torque.
EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/24 mpg highway.
Where built: East Liberty, Ohio.
Estimated 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan : $1,419.

Anita : 4
Likes: The best wash-and-wear SUV on the market. New trim level sheds tacky black plastic. New tangerine metallic paint. Clever storage solutions, including plastic mesh overhead bin. Decent fuel economy. Standard antilock brakes and front side air bags. Rear seats can be folded up against walls.
Dislikes: No side curtain air bags or stability control. Rather big turning circle for such a small SUV. Uncomfortable rear seats. Handles like a short school bus. Seats only four.

Paul : 4
Likes: Utilitarian in the extreme. Car-based platform means decent ride and handling. Front passengers have tons of headroom. Removable rear skylight. Easy-to-read black gauges with white numbers. Durable cabin materials.
Dislikes: 2.4-liter engine won’t win any drag races. Wavy trim around A-pillars on test vehicle. A bit too boxy and geeky despite cosmetic tweaks.

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