Note to the bean counters at American Honda Motor Co. Inc.: That mountain bike acquired for the Ohio office was a legitimate business expense.
Same with the snowboard and surfboard.
After all, the materials engineers assigned to develop a different kind of flooring system for the new Honda Element sport utility vehicle could not give the thermoplastics a real-world workout without the real cargo it was expected to handle.
The result of those hours of dragging, toting and hauling everything from television sets to hockey bags is all over the final vehicle - now hitting North American showrooms - and provides a new design palette for the automaker.
``It was so different from a carpet [flooring],'' said Mary Dovell, a materials research engineer at Honda's research and development center in Raymond, Ohio. ``It was considerably more work, but it was a blast to develop.''
And not only does the Element boast a thermoplastic olefin flooring system designed to stand up to the wear and tear of young drivers and their hobbies, but it also carries extensive molded-in-color composite TPO body panels and an energy absorber for the bumper developed by GE Plastics.
When the concept version of the Element - then called Model X - debuted at the North American International Auto Show in 2001, designers laid out proposals for a tough interior that could stand up to abuse. The intent was to create a kind of a dorm room on wheels, with an emphasis on low maintenance.
The interior, they said, should pass the wet-dog test, able to withstand mud and moisture drops throughout the vehicle.
The material of choice, they said, would be up to the engineers.
From the start, Dovell and the rest of the materials team knew they wanted to lean toward a polyolefin system, one that would meet durability requirements while also being easy to recycle. The company also targeted polyolefins for the instrument panel, doors and console systems, noted Patty Scott, senior materials research engineer and project leader for the Element.
Honda tested other polymers, Scott said, but the engineers knew they could not spend a lot of time on the project, with minimal development time between the concept's debut and the Element's arrival on the street.
``We had to do a lot of testing very rapidly,'' Scott said.
``We spent most of last winter here just testing materials, all winter long,'' Dovell added. ``We purchased some things we figured the target buyer would want - the snowboard, the mountain bike. We just loaded them up and started dragging and scratching.''
For the floor, Honda ended up with a TPO with a urethane topcoat to provide additional scratch resistance for those bikes, snowboards and various boxes and bags. The company has not named the suppliers involved in the project.
At the same time, the carmaker also was turning to plastics for a new exterior designed to balance looks with easy maintenance. The engineers again used polyolefin, and the Element boasts injection molded vertical panels all around the body, with the exception of the doors.
``For us, this was both a styling issue as well as looking for something that's going to stand up fairly well, not corrode over time,'' said Jim Ryan, a materials research engineer in Honda's exterior group.
The TPO composite is similar to exterior trim on Honda's larger Pilot SUV, but those panels are painted. The Element's panels come in two colors - dark gray or metallic dark gray.
Honda has targeted annual sales for the Element at 50,000 vehicles. Mass production of the vehicle was launched Nov. 26 in East Liberty, Ohio, with the sales launch to be just after Christmas.
``We've been getting some good reactions out there,'' said Honda spokesman Andy Boyd. ``A lot of people seem to like it.''