2009 Honda Element is more expensive than its boxy rivals

Honda pioneered small, boxy cars in the U.S. when it rolled out the 2003 Element. It was loosely based on the Civic, marketed as a utility vehicle and styled like something you'd see in the bread aisle. Now, Honda has freshened it for '09 to better compete with the latest boxes — 2010 Kia Soul, '09 Nissan Cube and Scion xB, overhauled in '08.

But short of a start-from-scratch redesign, the Element can't hide how different it is from the other wheeled boxes. It's as much as 1,000 pounds heavier, $6,000 more expensive and, because of its rear-door design, less convenient. But it, alone, offers all-wheel drive.

All considered, you can regard Element as the premium choice among the small auto rectangles.

Its extra weight gives it a more solid feel and, all else equal, would make it safer in a crash.

The five-speed automatic transmission, new in '07, shifted more smoothly than the Kia's four-speed and was more agreeable than the Nissan's continuously variable ratio box.

The Honda's HMC 166-horsepower four-cylinder engine was more powerful, and felt more refined, than the four-bangers in the others, though xB's is not bad. Element's power advantage is partly negated by the extra weight. The weight and the driver's typically heavy foot combined to produce mediocre mileage (high teens; you could do better).

The newly optional navigation system was easy and quick to program, though the controls were inconveniently small, and the overall sophistication can't match the Honda system in, say, the Pilot SUV. The navi comes with backup camera that presents a reasonably clear image on the navi screen. Back seats have more moves than a hula dancer and can be folded flat against the side of the car or removed altogether. They only hold two people, though, vs. three (nominally) in rivals' back seats. And, though roomy, they weren't comfy.

A $20,945 starting price vs. rivals' opening bids ranging from $13,995 (Soul) to $16,420 (xB), makes the Honda less appealing these recessionary days. Element gives you an auto transmission at that price, however; the others charge extra.

Stubby, reverse-hinged back doors, like those on extended-cab pickups a few years ago, make no sense. Honda calls them "cargo doors" and says they allow the whole side of the vehicle to become an aperture, to fit the bulky items that, say, college students tote (couches, desks, large containers of recreational beverage, buddies who've consumed too much recreational beverage).

You have to open the front door to get the back door open — a significant bother, especially in tight parking spots.

Partly because of the small, swing-out windows in the back doors, Element's a wretched windows-down car. All buffeting, no breeze.

Here's betting that if Honda were designing Element today, it would have conventional doors.

The tailgate is awkward. The glass swings up just dandy, but the recessed latch for the metal bottom portion of the gate is inconvenient, especially one-handed. And the metal gate, though short, is unexpectedly heavy to lower and raise.

But Element drove nicely. A pleasant overall feel and pretty crisp handling (for a tall car) made it seem less compromised than Soul and Cube. The steering's good enough, and brakes, though spongy, seemed to stop the rascal just fine.

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