The joke in Dearborn, home of Ford Motor Company, is that you’ll get a ticket if you get caught driving a GM product in the city, writes John Rettie.

Honda had the audacity this week to hold its national media launch for its full 2003 product lineup in Dearborn. Honda officials say it was not done as an “in your face” gesture but rather to get lots of media, many of whom are based (biased?) in Detroit, to attend.

As far as we know nobody got in trouble with the local constabulary but many of the locals sure turned their heads when then they saw the Element on the local highways.

Honda might have had a reputation for innovation and production of leading edge cars over the years ago but in recent times it has become somewhat conservative in the US at least. That does not mean it hasn’t been a super successful car company. The Accord especially has touched a chord with American buyers having been the most popular sedan in sales with individual retail buyers for every year since 1991 (except 2000).

Meanwhile, the Civic remains the leading seller among small car buyers and the CRV is the number one seller in the small SUV segment. Not bad for a company that only competes in five segments. The Odyssey and the Pilot might not be segment leaders in sales but they are pretty much regarded as the best in class.

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Now Honda is launching the Element, its most daring new car since the first Accord in 1986. Some might says the most daring Honda ever. When the Element was shown as the Model X concept car at auto shows last year few predicted that it would reach production. Designed in America for Americans the Element is aimed at young Gen Y buyers, the next big bubble of buyers after baby boomers.

After extensive study of 20-something males heavily involved in extreme sports and other activities such as surfing, Honda’s product planners found that there was demand for a versatile vehicle that could carry people and haul cargo but was also fun to drive.

It’s the same conclusion that Pontiac reached in its design of the much-maligned Aztek. Honda’s Element is just as radical in many ways but its exterior design is at least desirable to more people than the Aztek.

The Element’s main feature is the lack of a B pillar. The rear ‘suicide’ side doors are hinged at the rear and can only be opened once a front door is open. The two side doors open out to almost 90 degrees allowing great access. Every seat can be folded flat independently and the split rear seat can be folded to the side of the vehicle to provide a flat loading space in the rear.

The plastic floor mats can be easily washed and the whole interior is designed for easy cleaning. With the two back seats folded out of the way two mountain bikes can be accommodated. If the right front seat is folded down a 10-foot surfboard will fit entirely inside the vehicle.

Honda only plans to build 50,000 Elements each year in the US at its Ohio factory. However, since it is based on the CRV platform and shares that model’s 2.4-litre engine and two- and four-wheel drive mechanicals, it is relatively easy for Honda to build the car without too great a commitment. The Element goes on sale across the US in December at prices ranging from $US16,000 to $21,000 and will also be exported to Japan.

Although Honda is not targeting older buyers it has been surprised that it is appealing to this group. The real goal though is to keep young people coming to Honda for its cars.

As the Accord has matured — the new 2003 car is so sweet that it’s almost more of a near-luxury car – the average age of a Honda buyer has crept up.

Honda is not in the same dire straits as Toyota however. When Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor, was asked why Honda didn’t come out with a new brand, such as Toyota’s Scion, his response was “We’ve already got young buyers.”

Honda should lure even more of them now, judging by the response to the Element.