By Kevin Miller
The Cube is Nissan’s entry in the US car market’s expanding small-box segment. Joining the Scion xB and the Kia Soul, our new-for-2009 Cube is actually the second-generation of that boxy vehicle; the first generation was sold only in Japan. This second-generation vehicle stays faithful to the original’s cartoony-style shapes, asymmetrical rear styling, and lounge atmosphere. Looking like it fell right off of a Tokyo street, the Cube is a stylish vehicle which is interesting to look at from many different angles.
My first drive, like most of my time with the Cube, was on a bright, sunny day. Upon setting off for my drive, my eyes were immediately distracted by glare on the inside of the large front-door windows. The windows are made from flat glass (there was no perceptible curvature), and the windows reflected whatever was out the opposite side window; during my week with the Cube it was not unusual to see entire cars reflected on the insides of the front windows, which was both distracting and startling.
Other than the reflections in the side windows, the driving experience was just fine. The windshield is upright, and relatively far from the driver. That shape necessitates very tall sun visors; they block about 2/3 of the windshield when in their most-vertical position. That being said, they aren’t nearly long enough to be useful blocking sun through the driver’s side window- they only go about 1/3 of the way back the door’s window.
Nissan bills the Cube as a type of lounge-on-wheels, a mobile device meant for enjoying life. To that end, I the driving experience was more geared for easy-going, stop-and-go motoring than for any type of apex-clipping or spirited driving. The Cube’s 122 HP, 1.8 liter four is mated to a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) which is curiously well suited to the whimsical transportation box. Whether flogged or driven conservatively, the CVT took a laid-back attitude to propelling the Cube, never causing a harsh downshift, but also not seeming to waste power the way some CVTs seem to. The CVT just added to the Cube’s laid-back attitude. The one flaw I noticed with the CVT is that when slowing to a stop, the unit makes a “whine” sound much like that heard from outside a transit bus when it comes to a stop.
Apart from a leather-wrapped steering wheel (and nice-looking/-feeling seat fabric), the Cube’s interior dash and door panels are hard, shiny plastic, and adjacent panels don’t exactly match one another. Still, nice details abound; the round climate control panel, the ripple motif on various interior parts (headliner, speaker grills, and cupholders), shapely door pulls, and a shag pad on the dash. That shag pad was a perfect place to rest my sunglasses, and it did a good job of warming up the mesa of hard plastic on the dash.
With those touches, and many exterior treatments that were painstakingly styled to give the boxy vehicle an interesting, eye-catching shape, the Cube proves that an economical car doesn’t need to lack style just because it is made from inexpensive materials. While it was evident that the Cube’s interior bits were economy-car grade, the fact that they were attractively shaped- and actually designed with style in mind- kept the Cube’s interior from feeling like a penalty box. Added extras like illuminated sill plates and gimmicky “mood lighting” in the front footwells and cupholders also helped elevate the Cube above entry level.
That said, there are a few manufacturing cues that give away the fact that the Cube is manufactured using cost-saving features. The most notable, from the driver’s seat, is the joints on the front window exterior trim. The front doors have rounded corners with straight edges at the top and bottom, there are joints in two locations of the bottom window trim, which look poorly-assembled; I have low hopes for their longevity, especially if the car is run through an automatic carwash.
During my time with the Cube, I found that I really enjoyed being behind the wheel. The car had adequate (but by no means fast) acceleration, an amazingly tight turning radius, excellent visibility, and an almost perfectly-damped suspension. It rode well whether I was alone in the car, or I had my family and some luggage with me.
Speaking of luggage, the size of the Cube’s luggage area is dependent on where the sliding rear seat is positioned. When positioned all the way back, there is room for a rear-facing car seat behind the passenger seat (which can still be used), and the cargo space is modest. Without the car seat in place, the rear seat can be slid several inches forward, and the seatback can even fold forward in a 60/40% split (though the resultant cargo area is not flat). The cargo door, a feature of the Cube’s asymmetrical back end, is hinged on the driver’s side of the car (here in the US, the rear door is left-hinged, while in Japan it is right-hinged). Other vehicles with side-hinged tailgates (such as Suzuki Grand Vitara) could take a lesson from the Cube, which can be loaded from the curb when parallel parked.
When the Cube’s rear door is open to load cargo, the top edges of the tail lamps are exposed, and they especially vulnerable to damage because the cargo floor is lower than the opening, meaning that cargo is being lifted over the tail lamps. The Cube I tested was equipped with optional rear parking sonar, which was appreciated as the Cube’s stylish rear end had poor sightlines for reversing.
So overall I really liked the Cube, though it was not without its flaws. The Cube’s boxy shape is susceptible to being affected by cross-winds. The iPod interface refused to work with my iPhone. The steering wheel would benefit from telescoping adjustment instead of just tilt.
Disturbingly, the roof slightly shudders when a door is closed. Too, the door tops (window frames) rebound a bit when doors are slammed, likely because that part of the door is over two feet above the door latch. While the Cube has front, front seat, and side curtain airbags, the less-than-rock-solid construction makes me wonder how the Cube might fare in a real-world collision, as it seems to be made from rather thin metal.
The benefit of that thin metal, though, is light weight. The 122 HP Cube 1.8 SL with CVT has an amazing EPA rating of 28 city, 30 highway, 29 combined. By comparison, the 142 HP, 2.0 liter Kia Soul is rated 24/30 MPG, and the 158 HP, 2.4 liter Scion XB is rated 22/28 MPG. Those numbers being the case, the Cube’s trip computer showed an average of 25.8 MPG after my 250 miles.
As the Cube had only been on the market for about a month at the time of my test, the Scarlet Red test car attracted a lot of curious glances. The version I tested was the Cube 1.8 SL, which Nissan refers to as a “cube Mobile Device”, with an MSRP of $16,790. Standard equipment included front disc and rear drum brakes, ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Brake Assist, Traction Control System, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, premium seat fabric, cruise control, trip computer, electroluminescent gauges, automatic climate control, power windows, and automatic on/off headlamps. Optional equipment included the relatively expensive SL Preferred Package for $1600 (Nissan Intelligent Key with push button ignition, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, rear sonar system, XM satellite radio, and six upgraded speakers with Rockford Fosgate subwoofer); Interior Designer Package for $230 (carpeted floor mates, carpeted cargo area mat, shag dash topper, and front door bungees); Vehicle Alarm Impact Sensor for $100, and Interior Illumination Package for $490. Including the destination charge of $720, the total price was $19,930.
The Kia Soul Sport we recently tested had similar features but a total price of $18,345, which is nearly $1600 less than the Cube 1.8 SL. This is one of those instances, though, where you seem to get what you pay for. I found the Cube to be more comfortable, more stylish, and much better thought-out than the Soul. The Nissan Cube was easily $1600 lovelier than the Kia Soul, and the Cube is the vehicle I would buy in this segment.
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