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Dog & Driver
The forthcoming Honda Element

So, what is the best vehicle for dogs? The answers are as varied as the budgets and lifestyles of the their owners, particularly in this economic climate. Indeed, it’s not always a brand-new car. For Jeff Frelich, director of research and development for seating products at Lear Corporation outside Detroit, it’s two: the venerable Chrysler Town and Country minivan and a newer Chrysler Pacific sitting in his driveway. “These vehicles have enough cargo space to haul four kids, a dog and hockey gear around to competitive meets in Michigan,” Frelich says without hesitation. “Cleanability is also a big factor, whether it’s dog drool or spilled juice boxes.” Both cars have leather interiors he can wipe clean, and removable third-row seating to accommodate luggage and a crate for a 75-pound dog. (Considering that for some 2009 makes and models, leather upholstery adds as much as $3K to the cost, an investment in sturdy dog-proof seat covers could provide achieve the same cleanability for fewer dollars.)

And, like many consumers concerned about both unpredictable fuel prices and the environment, car buyers also want more economy for every mile traveled—in some cases, opting to scale back on vehicle size. Barbara Barefield, a Detroit-based graphic artist, shuttles Devo, her St. Bernard, in the back seat of a Toyota Prius because she wants to leave a smaller paw print on the planet. “Devo adapted,” she says. According to reviews, the 2010 Prius is even more eco-friendly; the third-generation model, which was launched in January at the Detroit Auto Show, has an optional sliding-glass moon roof with solar panels powering an air circulation system that prevents the interior temperature from rising while the car is parked. In fact, many automakers now offer hybrid alternatives, so those who need a bigger ride are likely to find one that combines greater fuel efficiency and the space they require.

Honda has a hybrid model—the Insight—but its most high-profile “dog car” is the Element, which is advertised as “man’s best friend’s best friend.” The company may have a point: The urethane-coated floors are simple to wipe down, wide-open cargo doors on both sides (plus a clamshell dual tailgate mechanism) allow for easy entry, and it’s one of the least costly sport utility vehicles available. Auto critic Mark Phelan says these features make the Element among the most frequently seen models at dog parks. When Ace romped in the river and then climbed, mud-soaked, into the Element, Phelan washed it down, wiped it dry and returned it to the manufacturer no worse for wear. At April’s New York Auto Show, Honda premiered the prototype for their Element EX Dog Friendly™ option package. While details were still being worked out at press time, the package will include, among other things, a cushioned dog bed with an elevated platform, water bowl, load-in ramp and rear ventilation fan.

Honda isn’t the only one paying attention to the wants and needs of dog owners. The Toyota Venza, with its roomy cargo area, has a rear hatch that allows easy entry and exit and is also equipped with a pet ramp. Taking dog-friendliness a step further, Toyota paired up with Kurgo and played a leading role at Global Pet Expo 2009 in mid-February, where the company’s show booth featured pet-friendly accessories available for this new model, among them, Kurgo’s waterproof Wander Hammock, seat covers, Auto Zip Line, backseat barrier, and Skybox booster seat.

Subaru’s two stalwarts, Forester and Outback, continue to please dog lovers. Also at Global Pet Expo, the ’09 Forester display car, which has wider door openings to facilitate loading, incorporated seat covers from Bergan pet products. The sturdy Outback station wagon ranks high with many canophiles, including Jeannie Oldham, who teaches pharmacy technology at St. Catherine College near Harrodsburg, Ky., and transports rescue dogs in her spare time. Oldham appreciates the Outback-specific pet barrier that keeps her pup passengers safely confined to the cargo area, as well as the fact that the car comes with three keys—just in case someone’s paw hits that door-lock button while she’s outside and the car is running, she says with the voice of experience.

Maureen McDonald, teacher, veteran journalist and dedicated Detroiter, writes regularly for the Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business, among others. visiblealgorithms.com

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