“OK, who parked the Frankenstein car outside?” Wonderful. Marvellous. Just great. American Honda spends millions encouraging a young team to develop a boxy, no-frills dorm-room-on-wheels aimed at active ‘Generation Y’ males and the first comment we get on trying it out in California is just sooo encouraging, writes just-auto.com deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

Admittedly, mine host, who has just clocked the new Honda Element parked outside his solar-powered house – with environment-friendly Toyota Prius hybrid in the garage – is a few years, but only a few, beyond the target 18-35 year old target demographic. But he’s blond, blue-eyed, Californian and a keen surfer, work and family commitments permitting, and his reaction was not what I was expecting.

Frog-marched out to the Element later, and forced to note the acres of interior space, rear seats that can fold any which way or be removed entirely, removable sunroof and deep-tint rear glass for changing room duty, wash-down interior trim, stereo with killer subwoofer, MP3 input jack, and so on, Mr always-lived-by-the-beach-in-California grudgingly agreed there would be some appeal to young blokes wanting somewhere to hang with mates, entertain (ahem) lady friends, shift loads of stuff and generally look cool. But did they have to style it like that?

OK, so California’s a huge melting pot, let’s ask a late 20s, female Russian immigrant friend of the family. “It’s, er, quite nice. It reminds me of all those old-fashioned upright cars we saw in the Petersen car museum last week.”

Dash design is simple; intuitive to use
Maybe it was the time of year – the chilly 19-degree sunny Los Angeles ‘winter’ everyone was complaining about (and we Brits thought was better than our summer), the threat of war with Iraq (many ‘no war’ signs evident in suburban front yards) – but, aside from those less than complimentary comments, the Element attracted no undue attention during a few days’ tenure on the US Left Coast.

Recalling the fall-about-laughing reaction of people the time I drove New Zealand’s first Honda City down Wellington’s main shopping street way back in 1984, I had thought American Honda’s first really distinctive new model in years – rising above a sea of reliable but nondescript Civic and Accord sedans – might attract a bit more interest in trendy Southern California but people drove or walked by without a second glance.

The Element’s story has been well enough told already in the electronic pages of just-auto. Honda research showed young adults – Generation Yers, the 70 million-plus children of baby boomers – care more these days about the functionality of their cars (and electronic toys) than the looks. Keep it simple, keep it basic, allow some scope for customisation and the buyers will come, the research concluded.

The Element is based on a concept called the Model X first shown at the 2001 Detroit motor show. Productionised, it is built on the stretchy Civic-CRV platform with a 2.4-litre 166bhp variable valve timed four, five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission with trendy dash-mounted shifter, two or four-wheel drive and MacPherson strut front, trailing arm rear suspension. There are two levels of trim – base DX (sans even air and sound) and a ritzier EX. US prices range from around $US16,500 to $21,500.

The Element seats four only (young buyers did not, apparently, want to see any possible connection with Mom’s Odyssey minivan) with the rear seats mounted, theatre-style, slightly higher than those in front. Most unusually, access to the rear pair is via rear-hinged, centre-opening doors that require the front portals to be opened first thought the agile can sneak out through the front doors after clambering over folding seats.

US press comment has been generally favourable with most writers saying the Element seems to do what it says on the tin. There has been some criticism of a lack of power and a bit of a thirst for fuel – we agree – while the odd writer has suggested rear seat passengers could lose patience with a door system that requires those in front to consciously release them from confinement. Again, we agree, especially after twice being almost strangled when a rear door was opened with a front occupant still in situ – the belt mechanism is attached to the rear door and doesn’t half give you a yoink.

Other than that we had few niggles. No standard keyless entry and central locking that won’t open all doors from the key was one gripe, another was the fact that the front seats won’t ‘remember’ their settings if you fold them to get at stuff in back or to release a rear passenger.

Access is superb but rear-hinged rear doors and four-only seating might not suit European buyers
Some US commentators have suggested that the Element may well end up like the Chrysler PT Cruiser and appeal to older buyers. Certainly, this baby boomer could see the appeal in a vehicle in which round-the-world luggage for two slid easily in between rear seats and the lower half of the horizontally-split tailgate. Said rear seats would also fold in a jiffy to allow the load area to swallow whole an impulse furniture purchase and we liked the fact that (borrowed California friends’) kids, once bound and gag…, er, placed and seat belted in their safety seats could not accidentally open the rear doors until parental permission was granted, regardless of whether or not you’d remembered to trip a child lock lever.

Apart from ‘what do Americans think?’ the other question on our minds while we were in our Element was ‘would this sell in Europe?’ Honda is apparently considering replacing the existing HRV (for High Riding Vehicle and boy, does it; half the rear suspension is visible from behind) SUV sold on this side of the pond with the American-made newcomer.

Given the recent popularity of certain boxy French and Italian vans-with-windows, we reckon the Element might be worth a punt. What we’re talking about here is vehicles like the Renault Kangoo, Fiat Doblo, Citroen Berlingo Multispace and Peugeot Partner.

Flash these vehicles are not. They actually date back to the days when the French, in particular, would always offer a back-seat-and-windows derivative of a small van line and the Germans pinched the idea and called them Combis, a name you’ll still hear over ‘ere.

In essence, the general formula for the van version is a tallish vehicle about the length and width of a Ford Focus give or take a foot or so, a choice of 1.4 and/or 1.6 petrol and two or three 1.6- 2.0-litre diesels, sliding side doors and side hinged rear doors.

To do the people-carrying version you chuck in some bright upholstery, maybe frill up the instrument pack with some ‘metal’ surrounds, add some rear glazing and a folding seat (perhaps split for extra flexibility) and maybe swap the side opening rear doors for a lift-up tailgate.

Approaches vary, but the European makers tend to offer a swag of options such as air con, anti-lock brakes, sound systems, glass or fabric sunroofs and extra overhead storage space with a per-bin capacity approaching that of a Boeing 747.

Although its specification is not ideal in one or two respects, Honda’s Element might have enough on the credit side of its balance sheet to weigh into this niche but growing market. In the UK we’re seeing more and more families getting around in these van based people haulers and they get pretty favourable reviews even from the Gen Yers that populate most of the glossy magazines’ road test departments.

Honda is aiming Element at young ‘Gen Y’ buyers such as California surfers
The Honda’s big what-if has to concern the rear-hinged centre-opening doors which would all but rule out a commercial derivative should Honda decide to do their first ever European van since the tiny Acty slipped quietly away. In countries where roads and footpaths are half or less the width of those in the US, sliding rear doors are popular in tight access situations but re-engineering the Element for this feature would be expensive. So maybe they just promote the safety aspect instead…

Another feature perhaps requiring a rethink would be the four-seat capacity. The rival Europeans can all seat five if they have to and it’s likely a way would have to be found to add an occasional-use seat while retaining the Element’s clever side-folding rear chairs. A suitable range of petrol and diesel engines should not be too much of a problem. Vehicles sold elsewhere with a 2.4-litre four are usually topped out at two litres in Europe and there is a suitable two-litre petrol motor or two already in the Honda line-up.

The Element shares its platform with the CRV and, ergo, the Civic so the new Isuzu-built 1.7 turbodiesel slotted into Euro-Civics should go in without too much of a fight, giving the Euro-Element the oil burner essential for success in the burgeoning no-frills minivan market.

Building a Euro-Element, and right-hand-drive, should also be no great problem. American Honda aims to sell 50,000 Elements a year in the US with a few more for Japan, so we presume RHD has been engineered already. If not, dash and underbonnet layout don’t look like presenting too many challenges. If there’s no surplus capacity at the Ohio plant to build any for Europe, there likely is at the UK plant in Swindon, which already assembles the CRV and Civic, with some for the US. Sorted.

Of course, the decision won’t be this simple. Honda has consistently lost money in Europe and its designed-for-Europe Accord never achieved its hoped-for potential. So it won’t be lobbing something as unusually styled or designed as the Element across the Atlantic without some proper research and the staking of one or two marketing reputations.

But, based on its impressive performance with us in the USA, we’d like to see the Element in Europe. And isn’t it time Japan took on the Europeans in that vans-turned-people-carriers niche?

And, by the way, unlike our US friends, we liked the looks.