CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Honda's clever idea for gear-hauling basic transportation amounts to a box on wheels with a wash-and-wear cabin and a strong yet thrifty four-cylinder engine tucked below that stubby prow.
You can call it the Element, as in elementary.
It's stark and square and downright cubic yet fitted with durable fold-down seats for four riders plus a high-powered stereo audio kit.
This thing looks like it came out of a design school for UPS delivery trucks -- the body seems so flat, so angular, so squared.
And there are chip-resistant composite panels. They're flared in squared-cut rings around the wheelwells and wrapped over the top rear quarters.
On the flat sides, check out the double doors: Front one's hinged at the front but the adjoining rear door has hinges on the tail side and both doors open wide in suicide-door fashion to forge a broad pillar-less opening on each side for stuffing gear aboard -- trail bikes, snowboards, maybe even a sofa and stereo speakers to outfit a dorm room.
Then at the rear the hatch door consists of top and bottom sections which swing open like a clam's shell -- the lower lid folds down flat in line with the cargo floor as a seat or loading dock while the top one swings up until it's horizontal with the roof. It shelters the bay when up and creates an opening as wide and tall as the cargo bay.
Inside, the flat floor of Element is covered by a hard urethane-coated surface that sweeps out and wipes down fast.
Likewise, the four flip-and-fold seats in the cabin are also designed for quick cleaning.
Front buckets are clad in a feel-good fabric that's actually waterproof while two back seats wear durable vinyl upholstery.
Layout consists of a pair of firm bucket-style seats in front and followed by two broader buckets set side-by-side in a second row.
Seatbacks for the front set fold rearward until flat, as do both seatbacks on the second row. In effect, with all seatbacks folded down you end up with two long rows that resemble cots or sleeper seats.
And the back seats perform other tricks: Seatbacks also fold forward until flat, then each seat has a hinge on its outboard flank so the entire seat flips up to rest in vertical stance out of the way against the cabin wall.
Or each seat pod may be removed entirely it's light in weight and easy to extract.
This clears the bay for stuffing aboard big loads.
Dimensions of the bay -- 70 cubic feet with the rear seats flipped against the wall or almost 75 cubic feet with the pair removed -- open Element to haul a diverse collection of cargo.
Two mountain bikes fit easily, and without needing to remove the front wheels or handlebars.
A pair of snowboards also fits, and the wagon even accommodates long items like a ten-foot surfboard -- with the rear cargo doors shut.
A couch for the dorm or a big recliner chair? Even these bulky items may squeeze inside Element.
The 2009 issues of Honda's cubistic wagon show updated exterior styling and more equipment aboard.
On the body look for a fresh design for the face with a pentagonal grille in black mesh ringed by a flat metal band.
There are new configurations for the headlamp clusters as front fenders in metal rise above squared wheel arches.
In the cabin, Element has brighter color schemes with titanium-like side strips and revamped switchgear and meter graphics.
Foundation for Element traces to Honda's Global Compact Platform also employed for the CR-V sport utility vehicle, only the wheelbase has been abbreviated by a couple of inches as the wheel track expands.
The unit-body platform merges chassis and superstructure to forge a single framework that's extremely strong and rigid, with extra bracing applied in the area of pillar-less side portals where the double doors go.
Working in favor of a dynamic vehicle is the independent suspension -- tuned MacPherson struts up front and a double wishbone design in back -- with 16-inch wheels (steel or aluminum) capped by all-season tires.
There's a computer-managed vehicle stability control system aboard labeled Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), along with a four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) coupled to electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA) units.
A front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain for Element consists of a four-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed automatic transmission or a five-speed manual.
The dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) 2.4-liter in-line-four is made from aluminum with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's special i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and cylinder combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band.
It produces 166 hp at 5800 rpm and torque of 161 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
It also earns respectable fuel-burn scores with EPA mileage estimates up to 25 mpg.
Honda's automatic four-wheel-drive (4WD) system is also available to improve tire grip. This smart equipment can divert the engine's power to rear wheels when the front wheels slip.
Note, though, that the absence of protective undercarriage plates and a lockable differential with low-gear range signify that Element's four-wheeling intent is directed at improving traction on rain-slick pavement or in winter weather rather than for off-road forays.
Honda divides Element into three grades for 2009 -- the back-to-basics Element LX, a refined and plush Element EX plus sporty Element SC.
The SC -- offered strictly in FWD mode -- totes a sport-tuned suspension and premium gear.
New equipment for EX and SC trims includes Honda's satellite-linked navigation system with voice activation and a rearview camera, USB digital media connectivity and a convertible center console with removable cooler box.
Honda's price plan for the 2009 Element dips as low as $20,275 for Element LX.