The square that's not trying to be hip
by: ANNI TRACY, The Honda Element can easily handle the elements, thanks to its easy-clean interior and available all-wheel-drive.

With so many boxy cars out there aimed at hip young things, it's sometimes hard to remember how different the Honda Element is from the rest of the pack.

The Kia Rio, Nissan Cube and Scion xB are all high on style and clearly aimed at the urban market - including suburbanites who wished they lived downtown.

But with the Element, form follows function. It is boxy because that is a practical shape. There is no pillar between the front and rear side doors, which are hinged in the back for easy loading when both are open. The rear hatch and tailgate also open separately, allowing heavy packages to be slid in. The back seats recline, fold down and can be removed. The floor is covered in textured urethane for easy cleaning. And it is the only one of the four boxy cas to be offered with all-wheel-drive.

The Element is also considerably larger than the other three, meaning it can carry a lot more stuff. Headroom is also no problem for taller drivers and passengers.

And just to emphasize the Element's functionality, this year brings a new option called the Dog Friendly package. It includes a fully enclosed kennel that sits in the cargo area and features a cushioned bed and built-in water bowl, an extendable ramp to help the dog enter and exit, a rear ventilation fan, rubber floor mats and water-resistant back seat covers.

If all this usefulness has a downside, it may be that Honda doesn't think the Element needs to be much fun to drive, especially compared to the other boxy cars, which are tempting and easy to throw around. The Element is certainly stable and, with 166 horsepower on tap, relatively peppy. But the steering is vague and it is only available with a five-speed automatic transmission that does not offer a manual shift mode.

That said, the Element is certainly not unpleasant or difficult to drive. It rides higher than most cars, giving the driver good views of the road. The gauges and controls are big and easy to use. The durable cloth seats and comfortable and surprisingly well bolstered for a vehicle that isn't sporty. And the optional all-wheel-drive system increases traction in bad weather, up poorly maintained hilly streets and off road.

Scion offers many options for customizing its cars, including the xB. But the Element is also available in a many trim levels. In addition to this year's Dog Friendly package, it comes in two and all-wheel-drive version of the base LX version, the plusher EX version and the sportier SC version, which features a large air dam, rear spoiler and low-profile tires - but not an all-wheel-drive option. All come standard with such safety features as the company's trademarked Vehicle Stability Assist with Traction Control and side curtain airbags with rollover sensors, however.

When the Element was first introduced in 2003, it didn't look like anything else on the road, let alone any other Honda. Since then the company has embraced the boxy look for its more utilitarian vehicles, the larger Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pickup truck. Honda seems to be saying, 'These are our workhorses. If you don't need this much carrying capacity, look at our more aerodynamic models.'

The pitch seems to be working here in the Pacific Northwest, where Elements, Pilots and Ridgelines are everywhere. Of the three, our unofficial count indicates the Element is the most popular model, which is no surprise given its versatility. Our guess is the Element is the current version of the old Volkswagen bus - the vehicle of choice for people who plan on spending a lot of time outdoors with their friends, kids and dogs.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Element

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door, four passenger SUV.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (166 hp, 161 ft lbs).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/26 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $20,525 ($24,320 as tested).

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