New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2009 Nissan Cube

“I’m a little surprised that you want this car in America,” said Nissan‘s bemused senior vice president and chief creative officer, Shiro Nakamura. The worldly Nakamura made an international splash when he arrived from Isuzu in 1999, with vehicles like the artful Murano, the revived 350Z, and the FX45. But as anyone who has been to Japan (or seen Nissan’s Pivo 2 concept) knows, there are hometown conveyances that just don’t translate off the islands. “When we made the first Cube, we had no intention of selling it outside of Japan. We thought it was probably too different, too unique for American people. But we wanted to test it.”

Nissan designers brought the tall, narrow, second-generation Cube to California, where it caused a scene everywhere they drove it. Journalists sought out the funky box for a spin and spread the word. “That’s when we realized we should bring the next-generation Cube to America,” said Nakamura.

We had our own full-blown 2008 Cube experience last year, having a laugh at its sloppy steering, terminal bread-truck body roll, and kind of wheezy 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Still, there was undeniable Toon Town charm in the Cube’s cubeness, its asymmetrical wraparound rear window, and the friendly, cozy interior. It was much smaller than the more staid Honda Element and more comfortable than the . We joined the clamor for a U.S. Cube and presented ourselves in Japan for an early drive weeks after the 2009 Cube was unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show last November. Never mind that our very own U.S.-spec Cube would be arriving this spring with a bigger, 1.8-liter engine and upgraded underpinnings for our more demanding roads.

We can report that the new Cube still pegs the needle on the geek-chic meter, thanks to the loving ministrations of a multinational design team comprised of Vietnamese-American Art Center alum John Sahs, Cuban-American Alfonso Albaisa (Pratt Institute grad and vice president of Nissan Design Europe), and a number of too-cool-for-school Japanese designers, including Hirotada Kuwahara (designer of the last Cube) and interior designer Tadamasa Hayakawa.

Sahs and the mop-haired Kuwahara (wearing a shaggy sheepskin vest and red plaid New Balance sneakers) gave us the walkaround of the new Cube.

“The concept for the Japanese home market Cube was ‘My Room,’ or favorite space,” explained Sahs, who’s been at Nissan for eight years. It was right that we dove directly inside the Cube, as it was designed from the inside out, not unlike Japanese architecture. “We wanted that same feeling for the foreign market,” Sahs said. “The next level of ‘My Room’ is ‘My Lounge.’ Here’s the ‘Love Wavy Sofa,’ and parts of the radio mimic the stereo in your room.”

Our Love Wavy Sofa – a.k.a. the front bench seat – was upholstered in a thick brown suede-ish material, with a keyhole slot in the middle that could accommodate a cup and a phone. The U.S. version won’t be getting the cushy bench because the controls for our two transmissions – the new CVT from the Altima and the Maxima and an optional six-speed manual – are both floor-mounted. We won’t get the four-wheel-drive model. We also won’t get the charming but delicate light-diffusing, translucent shoji-style screen that covers the large skylight above the front seats, most likely because the typical American will rip it from its moorings the first time he or she gives it a jerk. There are so many other little optional clips, hooks, nets, rubber bands, colors, materials, and body parts, it’s hard to say what will make it across the pond come spring. Chief product planner Yosuke Iwasa knows that accessories are a big deal, but wants to “keep variations low for inventory control.”

The new interior is significantly more refined and bigger than the last Cube’s. Said Sahs, “Hayakawa-san had the idea to shape the interior so it looks from above like what we call the Jacuzzi curve. The two-tone interior developed for the U.S. shows that concept better.” (Imagine a large oval nipped in at the waist.) “Then the circles on the headliner are like a drop of water. They ripple out and carry through to the speakers and inside the cupholders.” Sounds silly, but there is something organically peaceful about those crop circles everywhere. Or maybe that design wacky-talk is just infectious.

The instruments are supersharp, with white light around the tach and blue around the speedo, and in a pod separate from the curved dash, adding to the airy feeling. Stadium-style rear seats hold three, adjust fore and aft, and recline. Air bags, belt pretensioners, and active head restraints protect front passengers. Headrests and shoulder harnesses protect those in the back, along with side curtain air bags. The rear seats flop down, increasing cargo space, but even when up, there’s still room behind for a small human.

The last Cube didn’t feel all that tiny, but using the Versa to underpin the 2009 model and moving the wheels right out to the four corners added stretch in every direction – a few inches of wheelbase, a smidgen of elbow room, a tiny bit of headroom. (The Versa also provides the 122-hp, 1.8-liter in-line four that will power the U.S.-spec Cube, a big bump over the 107 hp in the Japanese Cube.) Still, snap a photo next to a six-footer, and the Cube looks like the little box it really is – actually it’s more than a foot shorter than the compact Versa.

But it’s a box with loads of presence, and you can’t help but be reminded of that when you see it in Japanese television ads with a little bulldog wearing sunglasses. It’s the dog that John Sahs and the design team envisioned as they sketched the new Cube: “The bulldog is a great way to connect with people. Our first real ID with the Cube face was the bulldog with sunglasses. The Cube’s stance is the image of the bulldog: squat, confident, and relaxed.”

Says his boss, Shiro Nakamura, “It’s a very nice dog. We love it.”

All of the designer nuttiness was the perfect preamble to actually driving the Cube with the Japanese automotive press corps in Yokohama, home of Nissan‘s new headquarters. In the mid-nineteenth century, Yokohama was the first Japanese port opened to the outside world. Restored century-old brick warehouses share space with Japan’s largest Chinatown and acres of shining new buildings rising from reclaimed land. A note from “Yokohama is not a very automobile-friendly place.”

Playing right into the Cube’s My Lounge theme.

With Nissan’s crack PR team in the persons of Shotaro Ogawa and Yasuko Inoue acting as translators, tour guides, and traffic stoppers for photography, we could concentrate on the Cube’s stiffer chassis, improved suspension (struts in front and torsion-beam rear with upgraded dampers and stiffer antiroll bars), and its tighter 30.2-foot turning circle. For about a minute.

Hopeless. Traffic was so bad, we were left to creep mindlessly along, enjoying an occasional hundred-yard burst of acceleration, and to wonder how to get our very own Love Wavy Sofa shipped home to Michigan for the Automobile Magazine conference room. It will be a nice place to lounge around while waiting for spring and our very own Cube to arrive.

Shiro Nakamura
SVP, Chief Creative Officer

“People tend to feel more comfortable moving slowly. It’s more relaxing. Not too much tension. There are two kinds of cars in Japan. One is the GT-R – really fast. The other is the Cube, the slowest-looking car in the world. It almost looks stopped when you’re driving it.”

“A normal car is symmetrical, but the driver isn’t in the center. He’s at the right- or left-hand side of the car. So why would we need everything to be symmetrical? If you drive on the left, you don’t need the left rear window.”

“When you look at the rear of a car, unconsciously you can feel an animal. It moves. That’s the basic difference between a car and a refrigerator. You’ve fallen in love with a car, right? You never fell in love with a refrigerator.”

“Lower and wider is the formula for creating a nice-looking car. We have here narrower, taller, shorter. It’s a new sense of value – creating space in a tiny area. In this, the Cube is rooted in the Japanese tiny island culture.”

“This is a very peaceful car. No rush. Having this car for the U.S. people right now is good timing. It is a very difficult time for the U.S. Some people are fed up with big and powerful macho cars. I think we need this kind of car.”

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