A blindfold is not required equipment for road testing a vehicle -- for good, and obvious, reasons. However, the use of one may help resolve conflicting premises presented by this test subject. In this case, the boxy, utilitarian Honda Element and its surprisingly sporty personality.

Nothing about the rectangular Element's appearance says "sporty," at least, not in the normal sense. But its covered-wagon type of utility is plainly obvious. After indulging curiosity by throwing the side doors open -- wide open -- and rearranging the spacious second-row seating in the rather large and practical interior, it is possible to come away with the impression that the Element may be all 'ute and no scoot. What a mistaken assumption that would be.

Honda's 16-valve DOHC i-VTEC (intelligent-Variable Valve Timing and Electronic LIft Control) 2.4L powers the Element lineup. This powerful engine technology is currently found in the sporty CR-V (and will soon appear in the new Accord). In raw numbers, 160 horses are squeezed beneath the Element's stubby, flat hood. The Element outweighs the CR-V by more than 100 pounds, and it shows in performance; with a slower speed both through the slalom and accelerating to 60 from zero.

From the driver's seat, the difference seems much less than the numbers bear out. The 2WD/five-speed combo offers a very spirited ride. Shifting through the low gears occurs quickly. Third gear offers great "around town" flexibility. The two higher gears can be kept in reserve for freeway passing and cruising, which the Element does with aplomb.

The overwhelming majority of production, however, will focus on the upscale EX version with Honda's Real Time 4WD and four-speed automatic transmission. While this flattens out the 2.4's peaky power delivery, it is still a respectable and versatile package for areas with four seasons or varying road conditions.

The Element's ride is firm and stable, with a wonderful suspension capable of neutralizing nasty speed bumps and road irregularities. Steering is tight and responsive. The blocky beast does exhibit mild body roll during hard cornering (especially with the second-row seats folded up against the sides). Stopping distance is only slightly longer than a similarly equipped CR-V.

But, the Element is not just a box on wheels. It is a box of pleasant surprises. Quirky looks not withstanding, it strikes a nice balance of form and function. If there was ever a vehicular justification for the admonition; "don't judge a book by it's cover" the Honda Element is it.