2011 Nissan Cube- Not The Box It Came In

Japan can be a bizarre place.  So much so that I often refer to it as “Planet Japan.”    If it’s cute, quirky, or just plain weird, odds are that it’ll receive a cult following among the Japanese.  This is a country that has given the world Pokemon, karaoke, Godzilla, diet water, Hello Kitty, and anime.  Another unique oddity that is prevalent in the Land of the Rising Sun is the box vehicle.  Short in length, tall in stature, and square as a…er…box, these cars take advantage of offering maximized interior space while leaving as small of a footprint as possible on Japan’s crowded and narrow streets.  However, will a nation with plenty of open land, such as the US, accept a vehicle that was the answer to nobody’s question?

The first of the boxes to arrive was the Scion Xb back in 2004.  Give traditionally conservative Toyota credit- it was a gutsy move and a huge gamble to base their new youthful sub-brand, Scion, on a car that was unlike anything ever sold in this country.  The risk paid off and even caught Toyota off guard- the Xb was popular with young adults, seniors, and tuners- and sold well above expectations.

Nissan wasn’t wanting to be left out and had been selling its similar Cube in the Japanese market since 1998.  Originally there were no intentions to market the Cube in North America, but the unforeseen success of the Xb changed plans.  In fact, the third generation Cube, like the one you see here, made its world debut in Los Angeles and not Tokyo.  

Nissan deserves recognition for making the Cube as bizarre as possible.  The Scion Xb was a non conformist car when it was introduced, but the Nissan takes the eccentricity a little further.  For one, the car is asymmetrical- the only vehicle that I know of that can make this claim on the American market.  One corner of the back has a wraparound window (there’s a hidden pillar underneath) while the other pillar extends all the way to the back door.  Look at the car from one side and it’s a different car than on the other.  The side hinged rear cargo door with a huge grab handle is reminiscent of a retro 1960’s refrigerator.  According to Nissan, the front grille and headlights were inspired by a bulldog wearing sunglasses.  Squint and it’s there, voila!  The side windows are rounded in a cartoonish fashion and contradict the overall squareness of the car. It’s as though Picasso had a say during this car’s development.

Looks are subjective on any car, but with the Cube it’s an unavoidable subject and many people either loved it or hated it.  Passer bys either offered acclaim that it was “cute” or “funky” or criticism that it was “ugly.”  One person even said they would squash it like a bug  if they could.  Like it or not- the Cube’s styling intentionally either shocks you or draws you in.  Personally, I get it- and love the styling.  In a sea of bland Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics, the Cube is a breath of fresh air.

The peculiar themes carry on inside.  The most notable feature is the headliner- designed to look like a rippled pond.  Nissan could’ve gone with a generic flat headliner but this is an example of where they paid attention to detail.  The rippled theme continues into the speakers and the cupholders as well.  Bungee hooks are on the doors and dash as well.  The bungees serve no real purpose, but are just there to be yet another conversation starter. 

Whatever you may think of the Cube’s styling, the real beauty is on the inside.  That tall, stratosphere reaching roofline and the squared edges provide a commodious interior for such a small vehicle- comparable to a much larger full size car.  Headroom and leg roof is generous in both the front and rear seats.  Passengers sit up high with a good view of the road- it’s not as tall as most SUVs but you’ll be looking eye to eye with minivan drivers.  All the seats are covered in a soft velour material and have a lounge like feel to them.  The rear is cushy and overstuffed like a couch and reclines, adding to comfort.  The front seats, although relaxing to spend time in, lack side bolstering and are quite flat. 

Ergonomics are simple and straightforward.  The radio unit is similar to other Nissan models and the ventilation controls are easy to operate.  The grey tachometer and blue speedometer can be read at a glance.  Nissan says they represent the earth and the moon.  I say they are just different for the sake of being weird.  Not everything is good though- the power window switches do not illuminate at night making it a pain to locate in the dark, the power mirror control is out of sight down near the hood release and driver’s left knee, the sun visor is huge yet still doesn’t cover enough of the driver’s side window, and the driving position with its flat driver’s seat,  bleak expanse of dark plastics, and high view out of the large windows- almost felt like being behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Express van.  Interior plastics feel cheap to the touch but everything seems well screwed together.   On a strange side note, the Cube has the wimpiest horn I’ve ever heard. 

Cargo space is mediocre.  There isn’t a lot of room behind the rear seats but at least the cargo bay is deep.  Liftover is high for heavy objects and the rear seats do not fold completely flat.  It could be awkward to load long objects into the back.  The opening is huge for big items and as much as I love the novelty of the swinging rear door, it could be hampered if another car is parked right behind the Cube.  The spare tire is attached to the bottom of the Cube, similar to a pickup truck, and that could be a challenge if there’s ever a flat tire.

Driving the Cube is more mundane than the styling suggests.  Afer all, it is based on the Nissan Versa platform which is a solid, yet unexciting, economy car.  The 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine is sprightly enough and moves with some authority on freeway onramps and over hills.  The car never felt underpowered at any point.  However, floor the accelerator and the noise from the engine becomes a raucous.  Not enough to liquefy San Francisco, but the issue is the quality of the sound- the engine groans and wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Deere.  However, this car’s main purpose is to be a city runabout and it’s performance and noise levels are acceptable on surface streets.

Nissan has mastered the CVT (continuously variable transmission) better than anyone but not so in the Cube.  Working through the power band is usually smooth in casual driving, but stomping down on the gas pedal when passing or hill climbing causes a slight hesitation and then an abrupt burst of power that felt more like a harsh downshift.  It was disappointing after driving other Nissan models.  But once again, in relaxed driving the transmission does a fine job.

One benefit of the CVT is excellent fuel economy.  The EPA rates the Cube at 27mpg in the city and 31 highway.  In the real world, I managed to blow those numbers out of the water.  On a mixed driving route of highways, congested city streets, and mountain roads I achieved an average of 33mpg and scored 37mpg on a 200 mile flat stretch of highway.  Not bad considering the Cube has the aerodynamics of a barn door.  Keep in mind that due to the upright stance, wind noise is apparent at highway speeds, the car is vulnerable to cross winds, and the steep windshield is susceptible to stone chips- I continually would hear it being sandblasted by small pebbles and dirt kicked up by other cars.

Being a tall, square box on an economy car chassis I expected handling to be a let down.  Even though the Cube’s driving dynamics around corners will never be described as sporty, it was stable, safe, and gripped the road tenaciously through turns.  Approaching a corner seemed a little daunting at first due to the high, top heavy driving position and flat seats but my confidence grew over time and the car felt safe and predictable.  Steering feel was vague with little communication though- a result of the electric power steering.  The good news is that maneuverability in parking lots was superb and the Cube fit into tight spots effortlessly. 

Visibility was excellent all around with large windows and a commanding view.  The Cube is one of the few vehicles that it’s easy to judge where the corners of the car are.  This would be an excellent choice for a learner driver.  One strange phenomenon due to the perpendicular windows was something I called “ghost cars”.  The windows, since they don’t arc towards the top like most cars, reflect vehicles from the other side of the Cube.  In other words, I’d continually see vehicles that are on the passenger side of the car being reflected on the driver side window.  It was sometimes distracting and gave me a few scares when changing lanes.  You get used to it, but it can cause a fright for the uninitiated.

Ride is supple and most bumps were absorbed effortlessly.  On LA’s pothole ridden freeways, the Cube felt comfortable and the front independent suspension (along with rear torsion bar) did a commendable job of keeping the worst juts from intruding into the cabin.

My test car had a lofty 44k miles of hard rental duty.  The only issues that could be found was some carpet in the driver’s footwell that had dislodged itself and the weatherstripping around the passenger window was drooping- which was easily fixed by pushing it back up.

Prices start at $14980 for the base model and that comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and a CD player with aux.  However, the base trim comes in manual transmission only.  My Cube was the next step up “1.8 S” trim adding cruise control, bluetooth, leather wrapped steering wheel, and the CVT automatic- pushing the price of this car to $18360. It’s a lot for such a small package, but a comparable (and less roomy) Fiesta or Fit will cost similar.

The Nissan Cube isn’t perfect.  There are plenty of more mundane cars that deliver smoother performance and fewer irritations.  Many of the gripes, and praise, about the Cube stem from the styling.  If you don’t like the looks, then you won’t understand this car.  But I personally love the quirkiness and geek sheek factor, and think that some of the issues are just a novelty.  And it’s difficult to look past the cavernous amount of room.  Even though it could have better interior quality and smother performance, I certainly prefer it over the more conservative Kia Soul and now bloated Scion Xb.  Although I’m intrigued and like this car immensely, it’s not for everyone and there are compromises, so it scores 3.5/5.0 boomerangs

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