1. The straight top of the windshield reinforces the impression of cubic rigidity, despite the fact that the Cube has subtly and softly rounded surfaces everywhere. This is true design mastery.
2. Nine round elements on the front end provide strong geometric contrast to the boxlike exterior form. Again, the straight topline of the grille fools the eye.
3. The hard crease around the grille repeats the theme of the side-window surrounds. The B-pillar artfully washes away the crease above the side glass.
4. The straight upper edge of the doors suggests that the Cube was a T-square design job. But the subtle roof curvature shows how cleverly our eyes have been led astray.
5. The crease line stays horizontal and the hood surface drops, bringing us to this sharp point that underlines the rectangularity of the neatly presented car.
6. The perfect circularity of the wheel-well openings and their link through the longitudinal sill bulge, of about the same visual weight as the fender lips, underlines the basic geometric purity of the design.
7. By darkening the glass, the designers have created an apparently homogeneous band that sweeps from the side around to the right rear corner. In fact, there are several transparent sections and some black-painted panels.
9. Anything other than this solid rectangular form would have been illogical and inappropriate. Stopping it abruptly, with no console or tunnel, increases visual (and actual) interior room.
10. It’s amusing to see a column shift control on a small car. As designers seek to emphasize interior room, the floor shifter, removed in the 1940s and restored in the ’60s, will pretty much disappear in the future.
11. The round steering wheel hub seems a bit out of place–but then the exterior is punctuated with four round wheels, so it’s not inconsistent.
12. The instrument panel cluster is banality defined, but the white gauge faces are a pleasing touch and allow day/night lighting changes at low cost.
Six years ago, Nissan’s Chappo concept graced the Geneva show. It was a curious little box that was aggressively asymmetrical in its fenestration and apparently a “toy” in the same mode as the company’s Figaro and S-Cargo. Nineteen months later, a slightly more serious but still asymmetrical Nissan–the Cube–appeared at the Tokyo show as a Japan-only product. My first close examination of the Cube came in January 2003, when Nissan opened its European design center in a recycled railroad roundhouse in London’s Paddington district. The Cube was charmingly funky and extremely Japanese. In 2005, I drove one in Japan, enjoyed it, and marveled at the willingness of export-oriented Japanese firms to build vehicles that would never leave home because they were designed only for right-hand drive.
In one sense, all cars are asymmetrical: the steering wheel and the pedals are on one side or the other, and few instrument panels are symmetrical anymore. True, McLaren’s F1 put the driver in the middle with a passenger on each side, like the French Wimille prototypes of the 1940s, but designers have rarely been allowed to make exterior surfaces deviate from pure symmetry. Most designers have wanted to do that at one time or another, but the fact that different nations choose to drive on opposite sides of the road means that cars with asymmetrical exteriors would require two sets of tooling, which typically is prohibitively expensive. Many European light trucks, however, have rear doors and tailgates that eschew symmetry, so perhaps a trend is developing.
We soon will know how Nissan will handle the problem, because a new Cube is coming. It reportedly will be marketed worldwide, including in the U.S., where the box-shaped Scion xB and Honda Element have done quite well. The right-hand-drive current model has completely different right and left rear quarter panels and an asymmetrical tailgate. Producing a left-hand-drive version would require three separate handed stampings, which might be economically feasible even with full steel tooling if volumes are high enough. It would be a shame if the new global Cube were made completely symmetrical for cost reasons. The blind rear quarter on the driver’s side of the car is really pretty cool and indeed very logical. You can’t easily take advantage of a window directly behind you on your side of the car, but it’s vitally important that your rear-quarter sight lines on the other side of the car be clear.
Manufacturers usually stick with the tried-and-true and make both sides of all vehicles alike, although from time to time one sees a panel van with windows in the rear sliding door opposite the driver, meaning that whoever specified the vehicle knew what was needed for safety. I’d love to see more logical asymmetry, especially on sports cars. Maybe we could get back the feel of the Bugatti Type 35, with its wonderful swelling cowl on the driver’s side.