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In its Element

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If ever there was a car for the generation born since 1980, a.k.a. Generation Y, the Honda Element is it. The thing was made for the folks with fast Internet connections and portable MP3 players.

According to USA Today, there will be 63 million Gen Y-ers by 2010, and they’ll be buying 65 percent of all the vehicles. The Element, with its no-scratch composite panels, hose-friendly Rubbermaid floors and suicide doors, is the car for what used to be called the "active lifestyle." Priced at $16,000 for the entry-level DX two-wheel-drive model, the Element is designed to appeal to young college grads.

In the ’80s, a clueless GM tried to get the young folks into Citations and other blandmobiles by singing about "the Heartbeat of America." It didn’t work. Honda’s approach is to create the woody of the 21st century, designed to tote snowboards and haul ass through the Microsoft compound in Redmond. It’s a much more astute approach, but it doesn’t appear to be working, either.

Oh, the Element is selling excellently well. Honda thought it might sell 50,000 a year, and instead it’s likely to move 80,000. The catch is that the buyers have an average age of 40. It’s not Generation Y that’s buying it, but Gen Y’s parents. What’s happening, I think, is an image thing. The snowboarders don’t need an Element; they’re already hip and young. After 40 we start looking at middle age, and cars like this help stave off the inevitable.

I drove the Element after spending a miserable week in the new Volkswagen Touareg, a luxury SUV that was awkwardly laid out and felt both too big and too heavy. For an SUV, however, it’s not bad looking. The Element is downright ugly — the FedEx truck with prettier paint. But form follows function: I’m far too old for Generation Y, but I do have an "active lifestyle," and the Element worked for me. I tested it out by transporting some wet bags of grass clippings, then rinsing it off: no problem.

Suicide doors have annoyed me on other cars because the front doors have to be opened to release rear-seat passengers. Driving the Element, I had to hop out to let the girls out for soccer camp. But somehow the enormous unobstructed space created by opening the coffin lid doors was sufficient compensation. The two-piece tailgate was well designed, too. The remote keyless entry is extra, but worth buying.

My kids couldn’t get enough of the fold-flat seats, which create a long platform that would be great for sleeping under the stars (or not sleeping, if you know what I mean). And, amazingly, it actually handles well, and is far more fun to drive than the ponderous Touareg. Another big advantage over the Touareg is excellent rear visibility.

The Element is based on the CR-V, though it is a foot shorter and almost 8 inches taller. (I could drive one in a top hat.) One would expect the car to feel top-heavy and lean ferociously on corners, but thanks to a stiffened chassis, it doesn’t. Like the Touareg, however, it transmits road bumps and grinds easily.

As Car and Driver noted, the Element is more Mini than Hummer, and all the better for it. Under the hood is a 2.4-liter double-overhead-cam four with 160 horsepower. It’s no barn burner, but in 2wd form it does deliver a reasonable 21 miles per gallon in the city, 25 on the highway.

Launched as the Model X show car in 2001, the Element was controversial from the start. It certainly wasn’t designed with me in mind, but I still get a kick out of it. The thinking man’s SUV? Maybe so.

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