The Element's importance to Honda goes beyond the 75,000 U.S. sales it is expected to generate each year. Consumers ages 16 to 25 are not embracing Honda at the same rate as their older siblings or parents did.
While Honda never stated an age goal for the Element buyer, the company made it clear from the start that it was aiming for Generation Y - those born between 1978 and 1995. The company hired kids on skateboards to help set the stage for the vehicle's public unveiling - as the Model X - at the Detroit auto show in 2001. TV commercials pitch the car directly to guys heavily into kayaks, mountain bikes, surfboards and bongos.
And the Element, like Toyota's Scion line, is using a dramatically different product to capture the hearts of active youth. Deliberately polarizing in its styling and interior fitments, the boxy Element features a wipe-down floor and impressive cargo room for its compact size. But those amenities also may be attractive to soccer moms.
The 41-year-old buyer makes the Element the 14th youngest vehicle in the U.S. market - from a field of 253. Twelve other vehicles share that figure - including the Jeep Wrangler, Ford Mustang and Mazda Protege - according to the Power Information Network, an arm of J.D. Power and Associates in Westlake Village, Calif.
Another plus for Honda: 36 percent of Element buyers are under the age of 35. That is a better rate than Honda's previous best, the Honda Civic coupe.
The Element also fares better than the entry-SUV segment. Power Information Network data show that 30 percent of under-35 buyers get entry-level SUVs. Across the entire market, only 27 percent of buyers are under 35 years old.
To be sure, these ages are of vehicle buyers rather than drivers. So there's no easy way to track the number of parents who have footed the bill for their kids' wheels.
But either way, about two-thirds of Element buyers are 36 or older. And the Element has attracted fewer under-25 buyers than the Nissan Xterra, or even the Honda franchise overall.
Still, Honda sees the early results as a success.
"Every month, the demographics are getting younger," says Dan Bonawitz, American Honda vice president of corporate planning and logistics. J.D. Power data show the average age dropping by one year each month that the Element has been on sale.
"More importantly, from the psychographic point of view, it's hitting the lifestyle customer we're aiming for - an active, outdoor type of customer," Bonawitz says.
Another crucial measure: new customers. According to Honda figures, 54 percent of Element buyers are first-time Honda owners.
And they're snapping them up quickly. According to J.D. Power data, days-to-turn - the number of days the average Element spends on a dealer's lot - was 11 days in February and 13 in March.
That compares with 53 days for entry SUVs in general and 35 days for the rest of the Honda lineup.
Bonawitz says Honda has a 27-day supply of the Element as of April 1. Should it maintain its full-production sales rate of March - when 6,234 were sold - Honda will hit its target of 75,000 units a year.
But how much impact the Element is having on the Honda franchise is unclear.
Honda is trying some underground marketing methods, such as having Los Angeles alternative-rock radio station KROQ place a modified Element in its promotional fleet. Station executives declined comment as to what listeners think of the vehicle.
Power Information Network data show that the Element has a two-humped bell curve of buyers. One hump is in the 31- to 35-year-old bracket; another is in the 41-to-45 set. By contrast, the Xterra spikes for 26- to 35-year-olds and drops off sharply from there.
What's more, although the Element is priced from $16,560, including freight charges, and the upscale EX from $19,130, J.D. Power data show initial transaction prices reaching above $21,000. That's typical for new products soon after they enter the market; customers tend to load them up with extra features.
Jerry Powers, dealer principal of West Hills Honda in Bremerton, Wash., near Seattle, sees very few young adults coming in. "They're still buying Civic DXs and certified used cars; the kids can't afford an Element," he says.
"It's the active over-40 crowd buying the Element. I don't think the intended buyer can afford it. It's the kayakers, hikers and mountain bikers who want an SUV without all the glitz and still get the great fuel economy. They see it as a miniature Hummer H2, especially if it's a black one with 20-inch wheels and tires."