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When the Honda Element debuted in late 2002, it was among the first small, car-based utility vehicles, rearranged from the basic underpinnings of the Civic.
In a recent week's test, I parked the '07 model next to a Jeep Compass - a new-generation, car-based utility vehicle. It is remarkable how much bigger and taller the Element is. And the Compass, based on the Dodge Caliber, gets a 2-inch lift for off-road ability.
How quickly the industry has adapted to these car-based utes and how quickly it has found ways to make large interiors from small architectures.
Element is an intentional quirk of automotive design - boxy shape, rubber floors, convertible seat formations, cargo tie-downs, storage galore and those back doors with the rear hinges and concealed door-release mechanisms.
It was a four-seater conceived to be used and abused, largely by college-age males, but either that demographic couldn't swing the monthly payment or they wanted a different statement about their stage in life.
Consequently, Element was embraced by an older group, though Honda insists it is attracting younger buyers.
For them, there is a new, sleeker model, the Element SC. "SC" doesn't stand for "supercharged," but "street custom," which adds 10 features not found on the old-folks Element.
The SC comes with a sport-tuned suspension, lowered ride height, 18-inch wheels (a Honda first as a standard feature), smoother exterior styling with painted bumpers, "aero" grille and projector beam headlights. Inside, there is - gasp! - carpeting, a center console with storage, piano black trim and special fabrics and trim. There is no change to horsepower.
Sold in two-wheel-drive only, the SC is the new topline model with base prices of $23,290 manual and $24,090 automatic.
For everybody else, the rough-and-tumble theme of Element is being smoothed with many refining features for 2007.
Among them, standard front side air bags, side curtain air bags and vehicle stability assist. All of which are part of Honda's pledge of "Safety for Everyone" that began in 2003. There's also new styling for the instrument panel, standard keyless entry and a standard tire pressure monitoring system.
Pricing ranges from $19,494 for the base Element LX manual to $23,705 for the EX 4WD tester.
The basic Element is a car so ugly it's cute. It's adored by owners, who are more likely to give their Element a nickname and tuck it in at night than abuse it with rough treatment. I wonder how many owners have added carpeted floor mats?
I've never been enthused by its mini milk-truck driving environment with blocked sightlines, including the big windshield pillars and the clutter of window pillars when looking over the shoulder. There's also enough wind noise at the mirrors and front end to make a shopper opt for the high-power audio system.
But it has interior space. There's an obvious 43 inches of headroom in front and a roomy 39 inches of rear legroom. And it is cargocentric. The rear end is easy to load and there are inventive storage areas throughout, with an art-school theme to integrating the parts and pieces.
Still, it's a better single's or couple's car than a family vehicle, mainly because of the back doors, which can't be opened until the driver or front passenger door is opened. That slows down the progress of kids getting in or out. And when children are strapped into the back seats, the view is restricted and the windows flip open just a crack to vent fresh air.
But I understand why Element has many followers: It scoots. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder packs 166 horsepower to toss around 3,580 pounds. And it will go for a romp.
The tall architecture is ungainly and forces squeals from the front tires in hard cornering. But with the new VSA and optional Real Time four-wheel drive, it's fun to push hard through the corners, make the front tires cry, then feel the corrective hand of four-wheel drive put traction to the rear. But I doubt Element owners ever make their baby cry.
The five-speed automatic shifts are quick and precise, just as is the steering and brake response. The automatic also has a slight edge on fuel economy - 21 mpg city, 26 highway versus 21/24 for the manual.
Element is what it is - perky Honda through and through, economical and safe with quality construction and materials.
Just the car Mom and Dad would want for their college-age so.
Standard equipment: remote locking, air conditioning, 270-watt seven-speaker audio system (including a 6.5-inch subwoofer) with CD and MP3/WMA capability (with auxiliary audio input for MP3 or digital devices), steering wheel-mounted audio controls, XM satellite radio, 16-inch alloy wheels and all-season P215/70R tires, power rack-and-pinion steering, power four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and brake assist.
Base price: $23,705, including $595 freight charge
Options on test car: none
Where assembled: Marysville, Ohio
2007 ELEMENT CHANGES
Standard VSA and Brake Assist
Standard side-curtain air bags
Integrated front seat belts
2.4-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine generates 10 more horsepower
Five-speed automatic transmission updates the previous four-speed
Black cargo floor
New styling for instrument panel, steering wheel and radio
Standard keyless entry
Standard Tire Pressure Monitoring System
New headlight and grille styling
EX model has painted fender cladding surfaces and door handles (LX has black cladding)
SIDEBAR: Limited-edition Scions
By Mark Maynard
Copley News Service
Get 'em while they're hot. Scion will stop building the xA and xB in December to clear the production line for two replacements that will go on sale in spring 2007 as 2008 models.
Keeping the love alive will be two 2006 limited editions.
The Scion xA Release Series 3.0 has a base price of $15,200, or $1,840 more than the standard xA. It is painted a special Stingray Metallic light blue and comes with front and rear KenStyle ground effects, special wheel covers, color-matched seat fabric and a rear spoiler.
Its thrifty four-cylinder engine has city/highway fuel economy ratings of 32/37 manual and 31/38 automatic.
Each of the 2,100 units to be built will have a numbered dash plaque.
The xB Release Series 4.0 goes on sale in November with a base price of $15,960 with four-speed automatic transmission or $16,010 with five-speed manual. Pricing, including $580 for freight, is $1,930 to $1,980 more than the standard xB.
It is painted Maziora Torched Penny, a polarized paint that changes color depending on the viewing angle or light reflection. Features include paint-matching taillight frames, rear spoiler and Modellista speed grille; rear bumper protector; and special wheel covers.
Interior extras include badged floor mats and multicolor underdash light and cup-holder kit. A color-keyed Razo shift knob is standard on manual-transmission models.
A brushed stainless steel badge denotes one of 2,500 that will be built.
City/highway fuel mileage is 31/34 manual and 31/35 automatic.
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