EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Honda created something of a sensation two years ago with its bizarre Model X concept — styled by its young California-based design studio with young Millennials as the target audience, and tested at frat houses around the country.

In short order, the Model X morphed into the 2003 Element, an equally idiosyncratic four-door utility vehicle that resembles a giant Fisher-Price playground toy. Based on the compact Civic platform, the Element goes on sale in December. We tested a late prototype of the four-wheel-drive Element EX, with an estimated sticker of $19,500, and found more than the design to be polarizing.

He: Bad news for Honda — I love this ugly baby. I say bad news because, at age 49, I’m certainly not the demographic they had in mind for the Element. But outside of the boxy exterior design, which is truly ugly, and those unfriendly suicide-style rear doors, the Element succeeds on so many levels, I could see it appealing to more than just kids and younger buyers. In fact, parents of small children could find this is just the right package in many ways, and under-$20,000 price is certainly attractive. Like it or not, you have to give Honda credit, not just for having the courage to put a vehicle as weird as the Element into production, but for actually adapting some very creative thinking in the design and layout of the cabin.

She: It may have been tested at frat houses and perfect for an Animal House lifestyle — especially since there’s no carpeting, only urethane-coated industrial flooring, plus waterproof seats — but it’s really a mom-mobile. I see the Element as a rolling playpen, able to defy spilled drinks and smashed French fries. Or maybe as the perfect vehicle for a dog groomer. But it’s too expensive for young kids. And those seats that fold flat ought to come with parental warning labels — Keep Out of Lover’s Lane!

He: On the other hand, that roomy cabin could be a refuge for parents of young kids, don’t you think? Just the thing for a Friday night away from the children. Speaking of kids, considering the basic two-wheel-drive Element starts out at around $16,000, I don’t think that’s a lot of money for what you get — essentially a Honda Civic with lots more room, a bigger engine, safety items like optional side air bags and clever features.

She: I loved the cupholders built into the rear seats, a neat LA-Z-BOY touch for budding couch potatoes. The overhead bin with the see-through mesh pocket is sensible and the rear sunroof adds to the spaciousness in the back. The removable rear seats flip to the side to create tons of storage space and they sit up higher than the front seats for good visibility. It’s the most unconventional cabin I’ve ever been in — and it works. The one major flaw is the design of the rear doors, which are hinged at the rear. You have to open the front doors first — and release your seat belt — before you can open the rear doors. The idea of a pillarless design w as a good one, so you can load bulky items from the side. I’m just not impressed with the execution.

He: I have some problems with the engine, which essentially has been lifted from the CR-V. It’s a twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 160 horsepower which, on our test model, was mated to a very smooth four-speed automatic transmission. With two adults on board, the engine feels pretty sluggish, especially under full throttle. If you’re buying the Element for your teenager, I imagine that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but older, more mature drivers may lament the fact that this vehicle can barely accelerate into moving traffic on a busy freeway unless your foot is really mashed to the floorboard.

She: The suspension in the Element felt bouncy to me. My parents, who rode in the back seat on the way to my aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary party, were clearly uncomfortable, especially on the expressway. But the Element also has a rather nimble feel without being too tippy in turns.

He: I have no problem recommending this vehicle for younger drivers, single or married, especially if you’re the type who wants to be noticed. Just be forewarned that you’ll get more looks of sheer bewilderment than anything.

2003 Honda Element

Anita’s rating: (above average)

Paul’s rating: (world class)

Likes: Fresh, out-of-the-box thinking (Paul). Absolutely eye-catching design. Lots of clever storage spaces. Cool rear pop-up sunroof. Killer audio system on EX model. Fully reclining front passenger and rear seats. Theater-type rear seats. Console-mounted shift lever saves space. A place for your purse between the front seats. Large, easy-to-use HVAC and audio controls. Really roomy inside. Easily washable interior should appeal to kids and moms. Individual cupholders built into rear seats. Nice mix of high-quality, contemporary materials in cabin.

Dislikes: Hideous exterior design (Anita). Front seat belts attached to doors prevent easy access to rear. Have to open front doors before you can open rear doors. Not much power. Bouncy ride, especially for rear passengers. No driver’s vanity mirror (Anita). Slippery flooring for high heels (Anita).

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-passenger utility vehicle.

Price: Base, N/A; as tested, $20,250 (estimated).

Engine: 2.4-liter I-4; 160-hp; 161 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,136 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record)

Where built: East Liberty, Ohio

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