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By Paul Williams

Shopping for a new vehicle can be difficult. If you’re in the market for a compact car, for instance, there are at least 14 from which to choose, and they’re all worth a look. Compact SUVs? There’s a fleet of them. Want a midsize car? You could spend a month driving each one.

But some vehicles on the market are unique. If you have requirements that are a little out of the ordinary, what you may find is there’s only one vehicle that will meet your needs. In that case, shopping couldn’t be easier; simply go and make your best deal because there are no others with which to comparison shop.

But manufacturers of these unique vehicles typically don’t sell a lot of them. In fact, in 2009 (latest figures available), their sales dropped dramatically. However, 2009 was a bad year for most manufacturers and models. As the economy recovers, we hope that while manufacturers rightly cater to the mainstream, they also continue to make vehicles that are “out of the ordinary.”

Here’s a list of “Unique Wheels,” on the Canadian consumer (as opposed to commercial) market.

Four-seat multipurpose SUV: Honda Element

The Honda Element is a utility vehicle that shares its platform with the more conventionally styled Honda CR-V. The Element is shorter than the CR-V, however, and taller. And some would say it looks a little….umm…boxy.

2010 Honda Element
2010 Honda Element. Click image to enlarge

But check out its features and you’ll see that there’s nothing else like it.

First of all, this is a four-seat vehicle, and all of the seats fold flat. Outdoor enthusiasts, therefore, could take the Element camping and sleep on the seats (a tent extension and curtain set are available from Honda). But more important, I think, is that when the rear seats are folded flat, they can be flipped up out of the way, and hooked onto the inside of the vehicle.

In this configuration, and in addition to the low floor of the Element, a cavernous cargo area is created. You can transport a fridge, a couch… really big items in an Element. You can wheel a bike in.

The Element’s four doors are unique in this style of vehicle as well. The front doors open conventionally, but the rear doors are hinged toward the back. When all four doors are open, you can walk (clamber…) through the Element from one side to the other.

Furthermore, the Element has a tailgate (like a pickup truck). When lowered, it’s designed to allow two people to sit on it, but it also aids when you’re carting those big items, as it further extends the floor. There are hooks and tie-downs in the cargo area to secure items.

The floor, by the way, is covered in a textured, rubberized surface that you can wipe to clean (you can’t hose it out, however).

The keys, therefore, to the uniqueness of the Element are its interior design and flexibility, coupled with its cheap-to-run four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive availability.

The Honda Element starts at $28,580. There were 976 sold in 2009, down from a high of 3,099 in 2006.

Two-seat roadster under $30,000: Mazda MX-5

Want an affordable sports car the way they used to be made? Two seats, convertible top, firm suspension, snappy handling, and under $30,000? The Mazda MX-5 is it. Toyota decided not to bring its MR2 to Canada; the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky are gone and there’s nothing else on offer.

2010 Mazda MX-5
2010 Mazda MX-5; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Oh, you can buy a classic MGB, Fiat or Triumph; and those old Alfa Romeos look good, but such cars are a minimum of 20 years old (more like 40…) and for most Canadians they’re not year-round, everyday drivers.

Anyway, Mazda has perfected the breed. The MX-5 has enough power, a rorty exhaust note, terrific handling and an exquisite soft-top (one-hand operation; you don’t even have to get out of the car). Plus it’s dead reliable.

Come to think of it, you can even buy 20-year old Miatas, such is their longevity. A classic Mazda Miata. Who’d have thought?

The MX-5 starts at $28,995. Mazda sold 850 of them in 2009, down from a recent high of 1,847 in 2007.

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