2009 Honda Element is more expensive than its boxy rivals

Traction control on the front-wheel-drive test vehicle was grabby, yanking the Element side to side as the system tried to fight wheelspin — which was common because the engine easily overpowered tire traction. The usually composed vehicle got unsettled if it hit a bump in the middle of a fast corner.

Probably because it's heavy for its size, the tall Element was barely bothered by wind. Soul and Cube tossed around quite a bit. Scion xB is not as tall.

Even if the higher price and awkward doors don't turn you off, the Element's lack of "hip" might. Cube, Soul and xB are meant to be personalized by buyers with a lot of enthusiasm and little impulse control. Their options sheets have the likes of lighted speakers and hunks of shag carpet.

Fitting Honda's more-puritanical corporate personality, Element offers nothing wild. If you're a serious-minded buyer who can accept the odd back doors, who appreciates the utility of a rectangular car, and who wants or needs all-wheel drive, you might embrace Element.

ABOUT THE HONDA ELEMENT

•What? Small, boxy four-seat car loosely based on the Civic sedan. Available with front- or all-wheel drive.

•When? On sale since fall.

•Where? Made at East Liberty, Ohio.

•Why? Seemed like a good idea back in '03; now needs updates just to seem like an OK idea.

•What's new? Steel front fenders replace plastic; hood is horizontal, not sloping; premium options available (e.g., navigation, backup camera).

•How much? Base LX front-wheel drive starts at $20,945 including $670 shipping. Top-end all-wheel-drive EX with navi is $25,955.

Test car was front-wheel-drive EX with navigation, $24,755.

•How punchy? 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated 166 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 161 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Five-speed automatic standard on all except front-wheel-drive SC model, which has five-speed manual.

•How deluxe? Fairly. All the belts and bags you expect, plus anti-lock brakes with the once-exotic/now-not brake-assist and brake-force-distribution systems; traction and stability controls; various power accessories — all standard.

•How big? A few inches longer and taller (and much heavier) than other box-mobiles. Element is 169.9 inches long, 71.6 inches wide, 70.4 inches tall on a 101.4-inch wheelbase. Weighs 3,515 to 3,648 pounds. Tows 1,500 pounds.

Passenger space: 103.6 cubic feet. Cargo space behind back seat, 25.1 cubic feet; 74.6 when back seats are folded against the side.

Turning circle diameter is 34.9 feet curb-to-curb.

•How thirsty? Rated 18 to 20 miles per gallon in town, depending on model, 23 to 25 on the highway, 20 to 22 combined. (25 mpg = 4 gallons per 100 miles).

Test car, FWD with automatic, was rated 20/25/22, got 17.2 mpg (5.81 gallons per 100 miles) in hard-throttle suburban use.

Burns regular, holds 15.9 gallons.

•Overall:Curiously pleasant to drive, despite annoyances.

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