Element of Surprise

Honda Element EX

It's as svelte as a shipping container, but Honda's new Element EX has an inner beauty that anyone who spent long summer days in a tree house will relish. Shut the doors and you have a playroom with ample space for four people (in one of 64 seating configurations) and tons of toys.

This compact SUV is capable of towing 1,500 pounds while indulging your adventure fantasies. Factor in great gas mileage (16 mpg while towing at the rated capacity), Honda's reputation for trouble-free reliability, and the brand's remarkable resale value, and you have operating costs that will leave change in your pocket to boat another day. The Element EX has superb stability, little wind noise, and rides smoothly. The brakes are fade-free, even with a load in tow, and the 160-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine outperforms many V-6s.

With a high roof, rear-hinged doors, and no center pillars, you'll enjoy wide-open access for loading inflatable gear. But the interlocking arrangement means you need to open the front door for rear access.

The Element EX that we tested was equipped with front-wheel drive and a five-speed manual transmission-an attractive combo for the price ($19,110), but far from optimal for towing. With two waterbikes in tow, we buzzed to 60 mph in 13.3 seconds. To get the torque multiplication you need to climb steep grades, go for the automatic (an $800 option). For an extra $2,200, add Honda's Real-Time four-wheel-drive system to the automatic. It kicks in rear push when the front tires lose their grip on a slimy launch ramp. Prefer the stick? You can still step up to four-wheel-drive for $1,400.

The back perches fold up against the sidewall, lift out in a jiffy, and hinge flat to make a comfortable bed. The upholstery is waterproof, and the spare tire stows out of the way under the cargo floor. The urethane floor covering supports a hose-it-and-go lifestyle.

MODEL Honda Element EX
Engine 2.4-liter DOHC in-line-4
Net hp/rpm 160/5500
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 161/4500
Transmission 5-speed manual
Suspension Front strut type, coil springs
Suspension Rear control arms, coil springs
Brakes (front/rear) disc/disc, optional ABS
Tires Goodyear Wrangler HP, 215/70SR-16 mud and snow
Wheelbase (in.) 101.4
Length (in.) 169.3
Width (in.) 71.5
Height (in.) 70.4
Curb weight (lbs.) 3,340
Towing capacity (lbs., max.) 1,500
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 75
Fuel capacity (gal.) 15.9
0-60 mph acceleration (without/with 5,100-lb. towed load, sec.) 8.7/13.3
60-0 mph stopping distance (without/with 5,100-lb. towed load, ft.) 140/175
Observed towing fuel economy (avg. mpg) 16
Price (as tested) $19,110

LAST WORD. Pack your inflatable tubes and wakeboards and be a kid again.