NEW YORK – American Honda Motor Co. Inc. hopes to bring down the average age of buyers of its funky Element cross/utility vehicle with a new model based on the prototype unveiled at the 2006 New York International Auto Show here.

The ’07 Element SC is set to go on sale in the U.S. this fall, becoming the top trim model of the Element lineup, targeted at 20-something males.

While originally targeted at younger buyers, the Element has found a niche with middle-aged customers, with an average age of 41.

Honda is billing the Element SC as an “urban-oriented counterpart” to the regular Element, with a sport suspension, larger wheels and more powerful 2.4L engine, making 166 hp, 10 more horsepower than the Element’s powertrain.

The Element SC prototype is 3 ins. (8 cm) lower than the current Element, and a front-to-rear aerodynamic body kit lowers the prototype even further, Honda says.

Like the refreshed ’06 Element, which offers buyers a choice of painted body panels, the Element SC prototype has them as standard.

Other styling highlights include projector-beam headlights, aero-enhanced black grille, copper-colored back lighting on the instrument panel, 21-in. aluminum alloy wheels, piano-black trim and a carpeted floor.

“The Element SC prototype is the city-dwelling, style-conscious brother of the original Element,” Dick Colliver, American Honda executive vice president, says, adding it can “best be characterized as a ‘night performer,’” the antithesis of the outdoorsy Element.

To bump up Element’s horsepower, Honda engineers added a high-flow intake and exhaust systems and high-lift camshafts.

There also is a drive-by-wire throttle control system.

The Element SC comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, with an optional 5-speed automatic.

Standard safety equipment on all ’07 Elements includes side-curtain airbags and driver’s and front-passenger side impact airbags; Vehicle Stability Assist; antilock brakes; and an integrated seatbelt system on the front seats, allowing for rear-seat passengers to exit without the front passengers having to unbuckle their belts.

The straps of the integrated seatbelt system are not mounted on the B-pillar, originating instead from the top of the seats.

Colliver says Honda expects the Element SC to account for 10%-15% of total Element sales in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Honda announces it will begin sales of the ’06 Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas, in New York state this fall.

Honda continually has emphasized it wants to take a broad approach in creating more fuel-efficient vehicles and not rely solely on hybrid-electric vehicles.

Honda currently offers three HEVs in the U.S.: the Accord, Civic and Insight.

While the Civic Hybrid has been selling well thanks to the Civic lineup’s new body style, sales of both the Accord Hybrid and Insight have been lackluster.

Colliver says Honda hasn’t made a decision yet on the Insight’s future. The 2-seater achieves the highest fuel economy of any passenger vehicle in the U.S., rated at 60 mpg (3.9 L/100 km).

As for the Accord Hybrid, which has seen sales fall 53.1% this year in the U.S., Honda reportedly is considering cutting its production.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com