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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Honda Element
Honda Element SUV

You might call the Element "a vehicle for all reasons."
According to Honda, it drives like a car, hauls like a pickup truck, trenches through slush and along gravel paths with the optional four-wheel-drive and claims title as the most intriguingly unique SUV ever to bear the name.

Consider why: Cargo space to spare (rare in some small contenders), pickup truck flexibility, a hard, composite floor to hose down if four-legged friends wade in mud. The shifter, dead-center on the dash, defies convention and bans awkward reaches. Hunky and square-cut, it looks so unique some first-time Element sightings have sent the curious racing across streets for a better look as it drives on by.

The Element was intended to tweak a barely teen-aged audience, lusting over space for waveboards and boom boxes. But any "must-have" frenzy has lured an additional following a generation or so older. Even a year after its intro, the practical family woman or man simply can't seem to resist more than 64 potential seating arrangements and other eminently usable capabilities. Need to camp on a trip? Front and rear seats fold flat for a makeshift bed. Clamshell side doors gape open with no obstructions for loading big stuff (or allowing a sandlot flyball to pass through unobstructed). Sliding in and out of seats won't wrench one's torso.

Improvements for '04 promise some ingenious touches, and sensible basics glaringly absent the first year. Besides the expected keyless entry and passenger seat armrest, the upmodel EX now sports seatback bungee cords for the skateboarder in the crowd to stow gear. Air conditioning on the new, midrange LX version also filters air.

The Element is next-of-kin to Honda's small, mainstream CR-V sport utility, with some more aggressive differences, such as heftier suspension and larger tires. It's powered by Honda's 2.4 liter, four cylinder, "intelligent" i-VTEC powerplant, a 160-horsepower engine, time-refined to eke out the best mix of acceleration and driveability with modest fuel consumption.

Accessories aren't just elementary. Depending on trim level, from lean to semi-loaded, there are alloy wheels, anti-lock braking systems, cruise control, removable rear skylight (with standing room when it's out) and an upgraded sound system.

Priced at $16,100 for the stripped DX model, this could be a bargain-hunter's delight.