Whatever you do, don't call the new Honda Element and Suzuki Aerio SX wagons. That unfortunate moniker conjures up images of Beaver Cleaver types pulling little red Radio Flyers on suburban paper routes. Or Nick at Night '60s visions of fake-wood-clad Galaxie Country Squires and Olds Vista Cruisers shuttling between the Dairy Queen and hometown split-levels. And the big nightmare: '80s soccer moms behind the wheel of millions of minivans with juicebox holders and Curious George window stickers.

Musty wagons are what Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, and your Aunt Ethyl got around in. So what do first-time new-car consumers want? How do 16- to 29-year-olds who grew up on Power Rangers action figures see themselves in the auto marketplace? Certainly not in a "Married...with Children" minivan; that's just too sticky. SUVs? Way too expensive, nasty on gas, and who goes off-road anyway? Pickup trucks have a tough edge and a hip functionality, but not much room inside. And the scale is just too mega. What's cool today for a growing percentage of new buyers are inexpensive, fun-to-drive, mostly Japanese-brand small sedans. Easy-revving, fuel-sipping four-cylinder engines and independent suspensions with cat-quick reflexes are the price of entry. Good looks and big tunes are part of the package, too. And if bombing around town is a social experience, then it doesn't hurt that there's stretch-out room for friends and all the cool stuff your friends are into. So it would appear that, at least as far as one market subset is concerned, things are evolving toward the high-roof wagon. There, we said the "W" word. Take a compact or subcompact front-drive sedan, raise the roof and seating position, and add a squarish body with an enclosed cargo area and room for lots of stuff.

If you're getting twinges of deja-vu, that's to be understood. An invasion of Japanese high-roof wagons hit these shores two decades ago, with names like Nissan Stanza wagon, Toyota Tercel wagon (the ubiquitous 24-hour bank-teller machine on wheels), Honda Civic "tall boy" wagon, Dodge Colt Vista, and, later on, the Mitsubishi Expo and LRV. Even the original Honda Odyssey was a compact high-roof wagon of sorts. To a nameplate, all these products prospered for a while, then got clobbered--on the practical side by roomier minivans and on the hunky side by outdoorsy SUVs--and disappeared from the U.S. scene within a few years. But times have changed. And the high-roof wagon is currently the number-one-selling body style in Japan.

What comes around goes around.

Suzuki Aerio SX
Though Suzuki is a fairly substantial player in most world markets, the car side of its business has been largely a footnote in the U.S. With the Aerio, Suzuki hopes to get out in front of an evolving trend and catch the wave. The Aerio Sedan and SX amount to a major redo of last year's flaccidly selling Esteem Sedan and Wagon.

Suzuki calls its Aerio SX a sport crossover, blending the virtues of a minivan, SUV, and sport sedan. It's a high hip-point design, the driver and front passenger sitting several inches higher than in conventional subcompact competitors. Also part of the SX package are a tall roof and wide doors, aiding headroom, ingress, and egress. The Aerio is built on the same wheelbase and within fractions of an inch in length of the old Esteem Sedan. Moving up and out has its advantages. For one, rearward visibility is optimized. Another is cargo space, virtually the same as the previous Esteem Wagon despite being six inches shorter overall. Another bonus is the useful, squarish shape of the Aerio SX's cargo area.

Dressing up a tall, boxy, slab-sided shape to look sleek and athletic is no small challenge. So Suzuki packed up its designers and bivouacked in Turin, Italy, to gather fashion inspiration. Which of the Italian design houses Suzuki took its Aerio cues from remains a mystery, but it's obvious proceedings took a decidedly triangular theme. It manifests itself in the tiny A-pillar windows, instrument cluster, steering wheel, headlamps, and taillamps. The theme is a bit forced, but at least it's consistently applied. Call it robotic design for a generation that evolved out of the Transformers. If only the wheels were larger, the sense of proportion would be better.

Thanks to the added width, height, and structural upgrades, the Aerio is heavier than its esteemed predecessor. Handling the extra girth is a punched-out version of the old 1.8-liter Esteem engine, now displacing 2.0 liters and, for '03, bumped up to 145 horsepower. In our front-drive, stick-shift Aerio, that's good enough for 0-60-mph times in the mid 8-second range, on a par with the Mazda Protege 5 and Chrysler PT Cruiser. And because the engine develops its peak torque at 3000 rpm, flexibility around town and in traffic is decent. With 63.7 cubic feet of real estate in the aft compartment, the Aerio SX can haul nearly as much stuff as a small SUV. And when running empty, the SX's low curb weight and fine suspension balance give it predictability, tossability and the sport-compact-car attitude to really haul. We'll add one caveat: Substitute the four-speed automatic transmission or add all-wheel drive, and the Aerio SX loses its performance edge in a hurry. So unless you need the poor-weather benefits of all-wheel drive or can't be bothered rowing your own gears, stick to the manual-transmission version.

More than anything else, the Aerio SX is a high-value package with great fit and finish and a generous helping of standard equipment. Interior switchgear and materials are surprisingly well done for an economy car. For a base price of $14,999 (including destination), the SX buyer gets such items as cruise, tilt, and air, a six-speaker stereo with six-disc in-dash CD changer, remote keyless entry, aluminum wheels, foglamps, height-adjustable driver's seat, power windows/door locks/mirrors, split-folding rear seat, a transferable 100,000-mile/7-year powertrain warranty, and free roadside assistance for three years or 36,000 miles.

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.

Though the Element is available with automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, the sportiest combo is the front-drive five-speed manual iteration you see here. This version plays to many of Honda's strengths, namely satisfying manual shifters, brilliant engines, and fun-to-drive chassis dynamics. The Element's shifter sprouts from the bottom of the center stack, rally style, to free up floor space, and, compared to the Aerio's somewhat notchy gear stick, the Element's unit has the edge with the usual Honda stick-shift wonderfulness.

So how does this baby UPS truck handle? Though the tallish Element looks like it might be best suited to a postal route, don't be deceived. Its wide stance aids stability, and firm damping and spring tuning keep body roll in check. Quick steering gives quick turn-in and meaty four-wheel discs provide confidence-inspiring stopping power.

The Element's 2.4-liter DOHC engine is a real gem, too. Shared with the Accord and CR-V, it develops the most torque of any four-cylinder Honda's ever produced. Thanks to i-VTEC variable valve timing and lift control, that torque is intelligently distributed over an extremely wide powerband. The result is responsiveness for passing and freeway merging without drama. The buttery smooth four-cylinder moves the Element's 3389-pound heft as if it were bolted into a much smaller car.

Our Element EX test car stickered out with a base price of $18,650, a fairly large jump up for someone trying to fit into a $15,000 Aerio. But if standard EX items such as aluminum wheels, power side mirrors, air-conditioning, factory AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, waterproof rear seats, and a few minor trim items aren't that important, then the $16,100 Element DX might make more sense.

Conclusion
The Suzuki Aerio is fun to drive, edgy-looking, roomy and cargo-friendly, and one heck of a bargain with a base price under $15,000. The build quality is at least as good as Honda's, as is the interior. But at the end of the day, it's just a damn good car.

The Honda Element, on the other hand, is a complete experience. It's a wash-and-wear base of operations for an active lifestyle, starting out in DX trim at an affordable $16,100. The Element embodies all the dynamic excellence of a Civic or CR-V and kicks it out to the next level. Question is, are you ready to give the Element the lifestyle workout it's capable of? If you can warm to the bulldog looks, we think the Element offers more life experiences for the buck and is the better choice.

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