Nissan Cube — Small, efficient and a bit cartoonish

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A 20-year-old relative said she simply could not own the Nissan Cube, one of the new breed of small, tall, boxy vehicles aimed at the youth market now making their way into the American automotive mainstream. It’s too cartoonish, she said. “[It] reminds me of the movie ‘Roger Rabbit.’ How could I live with that?”

But she doesn’t completely defy the so-called demographics she is the owner of a Scion tC, a trendy sports coupe, but more in the styling mainstream.

But perhaps not surprising to manufacturers are strong sales of the little fuel-efficient tall boxes to people over 40, people with more disposable income than the under-25 set and people who can see the advantage of driving small while retaining a rather large storage capacity.

Toyota started the trend a few years ago with the Scion xB. Honda followed with the bigger Element and later with the more mainstream Fit. And now Kia with the funky Soul and Nissan with the ‘Roger Rabbit’ Cube have followed suit.

These cars have long been successfully sold in Japan and other markets; the Cube is in its third generation with 10 years of sales behind it; but Japanese automakers were reluctant to give them a try in North America fearing there was no market; but the market is definitely here, and aging boomers are a big part of that market as they seek fuel efficiency in a small vehicle that can haul four adults with scads of headroom and decent rear-seat legroom, or can carry — in the case of the Cube — 58 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seatbacks folded flat. And the fact that they are driving something trendy just adds to the allure for the older generation.

Both the Cube and the Soul — the newest entries — are selling well. In 2009 the Cube had sold 21,471 copies and for the first quarter of 2010 Cube sales totaled 9,193. Kia’s Soul recorded 31,621 sales in 2009 and first quarter 2010 sales reached 10,851; but the Soul had those now famous hamsters to push it along.

We spent seven days in a well-optioned mid-trim-level 2010 Cube 1.8 SL $22,000 version. Even the base model at $14,710 including destination charge comes well equipped with such amenities as air conditioning, full power accessories, an audio system with CD player, and impressive safety including side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, and stability control. An S version sports a base price of $16,750 including destination charges. A fourth trim level the loaded S-“Krom” edition (pronounced chrome) starts at $20,840.

Someone who is used to driving more upscale mid-sized sedans and crossovers will find the Cube more inviting when they discover that most of the amenities they have enjoyed can be added to the little box including keyless entry, push button start, automatic climate control and a high-end Rockford Fosgate audio system with steering wheel controls.

But before getting too excited about the car’s attributes, ask yourself if you can live with this rather unusual design for several years or will you tire of it before you’re ready to change vehicles?

Cube has a stance all its own — even more dramatic than other members of the segment — with its asymmetrical rear window wrapping around the right side of the car, rounded side windows, wheels pushed to the corners, and a front end that reportedly was inspired by a “bulldog in sunglasses.”

The interior also has some unique design cues — concentric circles molded into the headliner mimicking a peddle dropped in a pond, for instance — but the dashboard is relatively straight forward and storage areas and small things that help living with it every day should make it attractive to most.

The front seats proved comfortable and we sat up high with a good view of the road and our surroundings. Rear seats that slide fore and aft allowed for good legroom. And head room is abundant both front and rear. The high roof gives the Cube a very spacious feel.

Unfortunately, cargo space behind the seats is limited measuring 11.4 cubic feet. The opening is very narrow and won’t accommodate a set of golf clubs. But it will hold a considerable number of grocery bags. Fold the seatbacks down and space increases dramatically to 58 cubic feet. Loading and unloading is made easy by a rear door that conveniently opens out from the curb side, unlike the more traditional hatchback liftgate.

The Cube is powered by a very responsive 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine making 122 horsepower mated to a smooth continuously variable transmission (CVT) that delivers good fuel economy. We found power adequate even with five people on board. It has been measured at a very-good-for-the-class 9.7 seconds from 0 to 60.  For one thing, Nissan is the leader in CVT technology. Its new transmissions make the most of an engine’s power. For another, the little Cube is a lightweight at a light 2,884 pounds.

Most people will probably be pleased at the Cube’s soft, relaxing ride. The downside for those who feel the urge to carve up some winding roads is mediocre handling from the long-travel suspension. Additionally when out on the open highway you’ll come to the realization that you’re near the smallest thing out there and that at times is disconcerting.

The Cube’s agility in tight parking lot situations is a real plus. A small 33-foot turning circle ensures that the Cube can roll into the most challenging space.

Our 1.8 SL test vehicle came with two pricey option packages, one that included the keyless entry and push-button starter and the Fosgate audio system, and a $2,550 appearance package that included illuminated kick-plates, aero kit, custom grille, and 20-color interior accent lighting. The bottom line was $21,990. Note that there are many dealer-installed goodies available as well.

We admit that the Cube’s unique design might wear thin with us. But we would never tire of the little car’s many attributes.

Base price: $14,710; as driven, $21,990
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 122 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 127 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: front drive
Transmission: CVT
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 99.6 inches
Length: 156.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,884 pounds
Turning circle: 33.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 11.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 58 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 28 mpg city
0-60: 9.7 seconds (Edmund"s)
Also consider: Scion xB, Kia Soul, Honda Fit

The Good:
• Ample room for four adult riders
• Pleasing performance
• Numerous standard features

The Bad:
• Excessive wind, road noise

The Ugly:
• Sloppy handling