The Inside

There's a reason the Element is a well-worn friend among outdoorsy types, weekend warriors and anyone else who needs a flexible cabin. Versatility is the name of the game: The seats can be configured in seemingly endless ways — from reclined flat, where they form a makeshift bed, to folded up against the sides for utility-van-style chambers. Maximum cargo volume is 77.1 cubic feet in a four-wheel-drive Element. That beats the maximum volume in the Toyota RAV4 (73.0 cubic feet), Subaru Forester (68.6) and Saturn Vue (56.4).

Turn them back into seats, and four occupants have room to stretch out. Frequent carpoolers should note that the Element is rated to carry anywhere from 1,017 pounds (FWD LX) to as little as 789 pounds (AWD EX), which four well-nourished occupants could easily exceed.

The second row is reasonably accessible through rear-hinged access doors. The seats have flimsy, low cushions and little thigh support, but the legroom is impressive. I much prefer it over the tiny backseat in Toyota's FJ Cruiser, an SUV with similar access doors.

The Element's utility continues up front, where storage nooks abound. SC models have a massive covered bin between the front seats, and all Elements have a three-tiered shelf above the glove box. In my SC test car, I counted 13 compartments — more than double what's in a typical car. The LX and EX have water-resistant seats; I poured some water on the fabric in my EX test car, and it beaded up for easy clean-up. The urethane-coated floors are awfully slippery, however, so make sure to secure the groceries in back before taking any corners. The SC has conventional carpeted floors and a urethane surface in the cargo area.

Functionality notwithstanding, I found little to like in cabin quality and ergonomics. Even after an update last year gave it new gauges and center controls, the dashboard has an industrial severity to it. It's presumably intended to appeal to the free-wheeling sorts Honda targeted when the Element debuted, but the upright facings and hard, dimpled plastics feel too cold and trucklike for the rest of us. Even truckmakers are pushing carlike interiors these days. Honda has already done so with the redesigned CR-V, and it's disappointing that the company didn't use the Element's restyling to warm it up a bit.

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