The 2009 Cube is a new subcompact car from Nissan -- a boxy, bold styling statement that Nissan refers to not as a car, but as a "mobile device". (Silly me, I thought a mobile device was a cell phone.) Though the Cube isn't the first rolling box to hit US streets, it is the most radical. It's also reasonably priced and fuel-efficient. So how does it all come together? Read on. $14,685 base, $15,385 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 24-28 MPG city, 29-30 MPG highway.
First Glance: A new take on a not-quite-so-new concept
I should warn you : This isn't one of my more exciting, well-written reviews. It's actually come out a bit boring, which, frankly, surprises me -- after all, the Nissan Cube is one of the most visually exciting cars to come along since... well, since the original Scion xB, I suppose.
From the outside, the Nissan Cube is a stunner. Polarizing. Daring. Ballsy. And not just because of the squared-off shape, because if you look at the Cube, it isn't really all that square. (Nissan has been there and done that with the original Cube (link goes to photo), which wasn't sold in the US.) The Cube is a square infused with circles. And then there are the really radical design elements: The asymmetrical tail and wrap-around window.
Before I go on, I have to explain that I have a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder (I can hear my wife now: "A touch?") and when I was a child I went to great lengths to impose symmetry upon my life. Asymmetry drove me bananas. It was uneven. It was wrong. And it was a phase that, luckily, I eventually grew out of. Today, I revel in the fact that I can enjoy asymmetry. So when Nissan came along and said, "Hey, Aaron, we've got a car with a side window that wraps around on one side and doesn't on the other," I got all gooey inside. I really like the Cube's styling, and I'm not alone -- my test Cube attracted lots of attention from neighbors and passers-by. I'm sure the Nissan folks would have loved all the comments and questions -- except, perhaps, for the one I heard most often, which was "Is that a Scion?"
In the Driver's Seat: Wait, what happened to radical?
From the outside, the Cube is a hit. But once you get inside, the Cube's visual excitement comes to a screeching, tire-smoking halt. Aside from the rippled headliner, there's nothing polarizing, daring or ballsy about the cabin. It's dull, gray and ordinary -- perfectly acceptable in any other small, inexpensive car, but disappointing in the Cube. The wavy dashboard is kind of nice, I guess, but the vaunted "floating" gauge cluster doesn't look like it's floating -- it looks like a box bolted to the dashboard. Look around and you'll see that the wrap-around window doesn't really wrap around, and that the rounded window corners are basically exterior trim pieces. It's disheartening, like finding out there is no Santa: You had a feeling it was too good to be true, and it turns out you were right.
Shame, because the cabin is actually quite functional -- it's well-equipped (power windows, mirrors and locks, keyless entry, air conditioning and a CD player come standard for $14,685), there are fathoms of headroom, and the back seat is enormous, a neat trick considering the Cube is half a foot shorter than the Honda Fit. But as big as it is, the back seat is best suited for two; sit in the middle and the seatbelt buckles dig into your backside. The Cube's cargo bay is just so-so at 11.4 cubic feet. The swing-open cargo door is hinged on the left, which allows easy curb-side loading. But with the trunk floor set several inches lower than the bottom of the door frame, there's a big lip that makes tough to load (and tougher to unload) heavy, bulky items.
On the Road: Not exactly a driver's car
The Cube is all about style -- on the outside, at least -- to the point that the fun-to-drive factor takes its place in the roomy back seat. The 1.8 liter 122 horsepower engine provides adequate power with either the 6-speed manual or the continuously-variable automatic transmission. But the noises it makes sound flat to the enthusiast's ear -- it drones on indifferently as if it has no interest in what's going on outside of the hood. It does, however, return decent fuel economy: I averaged 29.1 MPG in my manual-transmission test car, better than I expected given the Cube's boxy shape. With the Cube's profile, I was expecting lots of wind noise and crosswind action, and sadly the Cube did not disappoint.
But the handling did disappoint. The Cube isn't a bad car to drive; it's just uninvolving. It rides comfortably enough, but the electric power steering is slow to respond and offers little feedback. Pitch the Cube hard into a corner and the suspension seems to say "Couldn't you give me a little warning before you do that?" The Cube's height exaggerates the feel of body lean, and panic swerves are no fun -- the Cube feels as if it's going to come unglued, despite the fact that it comes with electronic stability control (along with antilock brakes and six airbags) as standard equipment. And the flat seats offer little side support -- I felt like I would have tumbled right off were it not for the seatbelt.
Journey's End: Not my choice, but neat nonetheless
As I drove the Nissan Cube around Los Angeles, it became clear that everyone around me was enjoying the car a lot more than I was. It's like throwing a really great party, then spending all of your time trying to fix the karaoke machine while everyone else has a good time.
The Cube's best rival is the Scion xB. The xB's exterior isn't as radical as the Cube's, and no amount of aftermarket add-ons is going to change that. But unlike the Cube, the xB is cool on the inside -- you know, the part of the car that the person making the car payments spends most of their time looking at. The Scion xB offers just as much back seat space and comfort as the Cube, plus it has nearly twice as much cargo room, though its bigger engine uses more gas. If you aren't as concerned with cutting-edge style, consider fading into the background with a Honda Fit. You wouldn't know it from the outside, but the Fit is a far more versatile cargo-hauler than most cars, including the Cube, plus it uses less gas. And Kia's upcoming 2010 Soul looks like a very promising competitor.
Let me close by saying that I applaud Nissan for bringing the Cube to the US. We're pretty conservative when it comes to cars, and the Cube is a bold step in a direction we very badly need to go -- not just in terms of styling, but in terms of affordability, space efficiency and fuel efficiency. So bravo, Nissan. I didn't really like it, but still, bravo. -- Aaron Gold