EXPERT REVIEW

washingtonpost.com's view

It is popular in some circles to call sport-utility vehicles “behemoths.” It is a stereotype that deliberately ignores the huge variety of SUVs, of which the true behemoths, models such as General Motors Corp.’s Hummer H1 and H2, barely constitute a 4 percent market share.

But stereotypes are useful in demonizing targets of hatred. It’s easy to hate a “behemoth.” It’s harder to hate a 2003 Honda Element EX, one of a growing number of crossover vehicles that are changing the meaning of “SUV.”

The Element is based on the concept that some vehicles should do an excellent job of carrying people and stuff — in this case, four people and all kinds of stuff, such as plywood, dirt bikes, skis and snowboards.

Thus, the Element, available with two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, is a reconfigurable box. It works as a pickup truck, sport-utility vehicle and minivan. It is designed to be used, built to get dirty inside and out.

The proof of its soilability is in its floor, which is covered front to back with a tough urethane coating. Cleaning that floor is easy. Simply use liquid soap and a hose. The Element’s four seats, covered with waterproof fabric, are equally washable. In short, what you have here is a worry-free, easy-care interior.

That’s a good thing, because the Element is ostensibly designed for buyers in their teens and twenties. A large part of this demographic group spends much of its time in modular dormitory rooms outfitted with cubbyholes, workstations, cots and computer docking stations. The Element is meant to be their dormitory room on wheels.

In keeping with that intent, the Element has multiple storage areas, including four side-door pockets, two rear side lining pockets, two bottle holders, a glove box, and front-cabin tray areas to accommodate personal digital assistants, cell phones, laptops and MP3 players.

In the tested Element EX version, the backs of the seats are equipped with bungee cords to holds books and magazines. Ah, and the seats can be arranged to sleep two people comfortably.

That is the Element as a “live-in” vehicle. But the Element’s key features — four cargo doors that swing open away from each other, unobstructed by a center pillar — define it as a moving/hauling machine.

The front-side cargo doors open at a 78-degree angle. The rear-side cargo doors open at an angle of 90 degrees. The floor is wonderfully low and flat. It all makes easy work of loading and unloading bulky cargo.

But consumers, especially first-time car buyers in pursuit of life’s adventures, seldom buy for practicality alone. They want funk and boogie, and the Element gives that to them in a body so ugly it lapses into cute.

The exterior is a work of mostly flat, central metal pieces bounded bottom and top by dark composite body panels and parts. Viewed one way, the Element appears to be an elementary-school stu dent’s puzzle. Viewed another, it looks like a military vehicle that swerved into peace.

What the Element does not look like is an everyday SUV. There is nothing exaggerated about it, nothing contradictory — no rugged brush bars on the outside competing with a Hotel Ritz interior. Yet, there is something unquestionably enjoyable about this vehicle.

I think it’s an attitude. The Element does not take itself seriously. It eschews prestige while laughing at SUV haters who believe prestige is what SUVs are all about.

Built on Honda’s global small-car platform — the same one used to build the compact Civic — the Element is nobody’s behemoth. It’s just a clever idea, well executed, that promises to offer lots of fun on the road.

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