Honda Element EX
For a company that sold only cars just a few years ago, it's ironic that "trucks" now represent a third of all Honda sales. The Element is the fourth truck in the Honda lineup, following the immensely successful Odyssey minivan, CR-V small SUV, and Pilot midsize SUV. What is the Element? Toss a coin, really. For the purposes of this test, it's a front-drive high-roof wagon that plays in the same league as such car-based efforts as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Toyota Corolla Matrix, Suzuki Aerio, and so on. An equally convincing case could be made to paint it with the same small SUV brush as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, and frankly the Honda CR-V it's based on, especially when configured with available all-wheel drive. The Element has the ability to be a lot of different things to different buyers. Like the Suzuki Aerio, it crosses over.

The Element is more than just a radically styled CR-V. While it's true that Honda sells far more CR-Vs to females than males and the Element's bulldog appearance is geared more to the male-oriented extreme sports end of the spectrum, there's much more going on here. The early research developed along two lines. One was what Honda planners called a "brain cage on wheels" that featured a body like a helmet and a unique door design that avoids both the appearance and functional limitations of a middle-class four-door sedan. Another was a concept that celebrated the maxed-out space utility, visible structure, and the clean, industrial design of a UPS truck. From this, designers moved toward a theme that made the vehicle the center of outdoor lifestyle activity like a lifeguard station, incorporating SUV roominess and a pickup truck-like flat floor. Key core values were flexibility, simplicity, and durability. The idea became the Model X Concept, one of the smash hits of the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Less than two years later, it emerged as the production version of the Element with only a few changes from the show car.

Conceived and executed outside the dull, numbing mainstream, the Element illustrates the diversity going on in today's auto-design studios. The blocky Element towers more than a foot over the edgy (and, by comparison, low-slung) Aerio. The Aerio has most of its bits and pieces about where you'd expect to find them--four sedan-like doors opening to a pair of buckets up front, a three-passenger split bench in the rear, and modest-size cargo hold aft accessed by a conventional liftgate. The Element, on the other hand, mixes things up. The 60/40 side cargo doors open like an extended-cab pickup truck or Saturn Ion, the smaller rear "suicide" door hinged at the rear. With no center door post or roof pillar in the way and with the generously sized rear seats set far back in the cabin, there's walk-through access between the front and rear seats. Cargo access is via a clamshell arrangement with a large liftgate and a smaller tailgate that extends the cargo floor or group activity zone. There's an optional tilt-and-remove sunroof, but it's positioned over the cargo area, providing safari-like stand-up space and a pass-through for long objects or in-vehicle stargazing. The Element's decidedly box-vanlike exterior is graced with dent- and scratch-resistant fenders, rocker panels, tailgate, and roof sides.

Inside, the theme is akin to stretch limo meets pickup truck. There's just seating for four, but all ride in roomy Business Class comfort. Unlike a stretch limo, the Element's rear seats recline, and all seats fold flat. The materials are New Wave, with hose-it-out, non-slip urethane flooring, waterproof seating material (covering all four seats on the EX model), geometric graining on the padded vinyl surfaces of the two-tone color-coordinated dash, and bungee-cord map-pocket straps on the back of the driver-side front and rear seatbacks.

There are what seems like endless possibilities for four dudes and their stuff (Honda claims 64 seating variations). A tall roof and upright windshield convey a feeling of spaciousness borne out by the tremendous utility. The rear seats can be folded up and hung along the sides of the rear windows, but block some cargo space and rearward visibility in this position. Or the rear seats can be removed entirely. The simple, elegant dash design is high on utility, with a parcel shelf that runs the full width of the car, then down the doors and into the cargo area. There's a pair of outlets on the dash, one for standard 12-volt plug-ins and the other for an MP3 player. All the usual Honda attention to switchgear feel and control placement is brought to bear in the Element's interior. Stash space is everywhere.

In the planning process, designers configured the Element to accommodate such items as a 10-foot surfboard, mountain bike, 27-inch wide-screen television, computer desk, extra-large foot locker, and so on. We even fit a Honda dirt bike into our tester.