It's Hip to Be Square: Honda Element Makes Its Rounds Around Town

Richard O'Brien

I am out of my element.

Well, okay, actually I am in my Element -- as in the Atomic Blue Metallic 2006 Honda Element EX-P loaned to me for the day by the good folks at Honda of Princeton. But what I mean is that I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to be doing. (And, I promise, that's the only "Element" pun I'll make -- no "table of Elements" or "Element-ary, my dear Watson," or "herds of trumpeting Elements," or ...). Usually, when setting out to write a car review I know exactly what to do: find a challenging bit of road and open it up. Over the years, I've had occasion to put Aston Martins, BMWs, and Ferraris through their paces. Most recently I got to test gallop a V8 Mustang GT. Vehicles like that come equipped with an instant alter ego -- you slip into the race driver role as easily as you do into the bucket seats -- as well as an imperative to drive them up to their standard.

The Element, however, is all about doing things "your own way," as Honda likes to put it. An imaginatively-conceived, thoughtfully-designed and smartly-built vehicle, it is cheerfully ready to adapt to your persona (or lifestyle, or whatever the current term is). And so, on this mid-December Saturday afternoon I am not on some test track or twisting mountain highway, but rather I am cruising downtown Princeton, driving my 15-year-old daughter, Valentina, around while she shops for gifts. And you know what? It's a fun way to go.

Now, I've never been an SUV guy and I've never owned (thank heavens) a minivan, so I was a little worried that I was crossing into one of those territories when I picked up the Element. But after only a few miles I was convinced that this vehicle sits happily outside both camps. Though Valentina instantly dubbed it the "Man Van," that was just to get her dad's goat, and I'm happy to report that the Element has none of the mushy feel of the classic soccer mom-mobile. Neither does it have the macho posture of a pumped-up SUV. Park it alongside a row of Blazers and Hummers and the effect is like seeing Spicoli going out for the Ridgemont High football team. It's just playing a different sport, dude.

In fact, with its distinctive square, upright configuration and its center-opening swing-wide doors with no pillar between them, the Element is ready for any number of different sports -- including, if you've seen the commercial, auto frisbee. Ian Pagnillo, the sales rep from Honda of Princeton who checked me out on the vehicle, assured me that, with the two rear seats folded up, the Element could accommodate two 26-inch mountain bikes side-by-side, without having to remove wheels or seats. And, he added, any mud from the bikes' knobby tires could easily be taken care of, given the urethane-coated utility floor and the waterproof, stain-resistant fabric on the seats. "I wouldn't run a hose in there," he said brightly, "but you can wipe it down very easily." I began to feel as though I should be doing something both more active and far grungier than mere holiday shopping.

But you clearly don't have to be an X Games competitor to enjoy the Element. Or even a Gen X-er. As Honda of Princeton sales manager Kevin Holohan told me, the vehicle has proven surprisingly popular with older buyers as well. "A number of our first customers were older than what we thought the target demographic was going to be," he said. "And now we see it appealing to people all across the age spectrum."

Which makes sense, given the Element's low cost (prices start at $17,750 for the basic LX; the EX-P I was driving was listed at about $23,000), engineering (156-horsepower 2.3-liter 16-valve double-overhead-cam engine and available Real Time 4-wheel -- which sends power to the rear wheels as well if either of the front wheels starts to slip) and versatility. In addition to the wide-opening side doors, the rear features a "clamshell" tailgate that offers a high and broad opening, as well as a sturdy nonstick platform that can support a couple of hundred pounds, perfect for, well, a tailgate -- or even a clambake. The rear seats fold, flip, or come out for a total of 64 configurations. I was heartened to know that if Valentina took too long picking out her gifts, I could remove the headrest from either of the front seats, recline it flat and hook it up to form a full length sleeping platform -- complete with a removable skylight in the back. With the 270-watt stereo with XM Satellite Radio, I could doze off to any one of 150 channels.

I managed to stay awake however, and after parking near Palmer Square, got out to take a closer look around the exterior. I was surprised, but the Element's boxy looks were starting to grow on me. The model I had was painted a solid blue, a very attractive alternative to the gray side panels that made the original Element look all too plastic-toy-like. While I was standing there, an older couple strolling by slowed to eye the car. "That's one of those Elements," I heard the man say. "It's cute," said the woman. I felt a surge of paternal pride.

A moment later an attractive younger couple stopped and peered in the windows to see the interior. "Lots of room for gear," said the man, who looked as if he might actually own a mountain bike. We talked for a while about the car's features and styling and I showed them how the doors worked, vaguely ashamed that there wasn't more mud on the floor. They went off together talking about going to the Honda dealer.

Driving home with Valentina, it occurred to me that not every test drive needs to be an adrenaline-fix. Sometimes it's nice to be in a vehicle that fits in -- in at least 64 different ways. We passed a red Element headed the other way. I gave a wave.

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