The Nissan Cube is the Hello Kitty of cars. Its designers, however, prefer to think of it as a bulldog with sunglasses. Whatever its animal-kingdom reference, the Nissan Cube is without a doubt the weirdest, most Japanese car sold in the United States. Some will say that the tiny, box-shaped Cube follows in the footsteps of the original Scion xB, but this Nissan takes the otherworldly, Tokyo-bizarro thing to another level.
The Cube is at once alien and intriguing, so we had to order one up for a real-world test. Would its determinedly different design seem cloying or charming? Or would we begin not to notice it with the passage of time?
We bypassed the base and S models in favor of an SL, mostly in order to get Bluetooth (now also standard on both the S and SL models). Bluetooth was part of the $1600 Preferred package, which also brought push-button keyless ignition; rear parking sensors; foglights; a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls; and a stereo with a USB input, upgraded speakers, a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer, and XM capability. We couldn't resist adding the Interior Designer package ($230), with its front-door bungee straps, carpeted floor and cargo-area mats, and the piece de resistance: a little circular shag-rug dash topper. Silly, yes, we know. With splash guards ($150), the total still came in under $20,000.
Before the Cube arrived in the States in the spring of 2009, editor-in-chief Jean Jennings traveled to Japan to check it out. She said it "pegs the needle on the geek-chic meter." Months later, when our Caribbean blue Cube finally landed on our doorstep, that assessment was still true. "Everywhere you go in this vehicle," wrote deputy editor Joe DeMatio shortly after its arrival, "you are vaguely -- or acutely -- aware that people are looking at your car and wondering what the heck it is."
Road test coordinator Mike Ofiara, however, was happy to discover an exception to this rule. Rolling down a local highway at a cool 90 mph, he came upon a state-police cruiser parked in the median, radar gun poised. "There was no time to slow down, so I just flew by thinking a ticket was coming. But nope, he didn't care." Ofiara wasn't the only driver to benefit from the Cube's strange stealth quality when breezing past the Law; maybe the police just don't believe the Cube can go that fast. Indeed, Nissan's design chief, Shiro Nakamura, has called the Cube "the slowest-looking car in the world."
Happily, it is not the slowest-moving car in the world, although our 9.2-second 0-to-60-mph time is on the poky end of the spectrum, even for economy cars. The Cube is mechanically based on the Nissan Versa, and it uses that car's 122-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Although the Cube has a 2.8-inch-shorter wheelbase and is a foot shorter overall than the Versa hatchback (and more than a foot and a half shorter than the sedan), it's more than 100 pounds heavier than the heftiest Versa.
Our Cube was equipped with a continuously variable transmission, which is the only choice for the SL and Kröm models -- a six-speed manual is standard on the base and S versions. The CVT really improves fuel economy, particularly in the city (28 mpg versus 24 mpg for the six-speed). Those figures, however, were for our 2009 model. Since then, the EPA-measured difference between the two transmissions has lessened. The CVT is now rated at 27 mpg in the city, versus 25 mpg for the manual; and the CVT still beats the manual by 1 mpg on the highway, 31 to 30. We averaged 27 mpg overall.
While some argued that the CVT matched the laid-back demeanor of the Cube, there's no denying that it also makes for elastic throttle response and a droning engine during acceleration, which helped to cement the impression that this is not at all a driver's car. "The CVT saps additional fun from a driving experience that's already only lukewarm," said copy editor Rusty Blackwell.
The upside is that it makes for low-rpm highway cruising -- at 70 mph the tach reads between 2300 and 2400 rpm. Freeway driving would be a relaxed experience, but for the bluff aerodynamics. Wind noise is pronounced, and crosswinds can push the Cube around. The utterly dead, electrically assisted power steering makes it more difficult to keep the car in its lane. "Why do the Japanese hate road feel so much?" wondered New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman.
The Cube was better appreciated in urban environs. "I love this thing as a city car," said DeMatio. Being so much shorter than the already-compact Versa, it's a cinch to park. And its ride comfort was not bad for a car with such a short wheelbase.
But really, the Cube is less about driving than it is about sitting. And it is a fine place to sit. With its huge doors and low step-in height, entry and egress are supereasy. Inside, the plush, cloth-upholstered seats are wide and soft. (The home market takes things a step further, with a front bench seat, which the car's designers refer to as the "love wavy sofa." The U.S. version doesn't have it because of our floor-mounted gearshift.) The rear seats slide forward and back six inches and also recline; adults are easily accommodated, and there's even room to ride three abreast, provided the passengers are diminutive.
In fact, the Cube's comfy interior managed to win over some of those who were put off by its exterior styling. "My wife declared the Cube the ugliest car on the road when she first saw one," said art director Matt Tierney. "Now she's relented. She likes the seating position and the visibility, and the high seats and large expanses of side glass make this a car my kids love riding in."
The interior is almost as uniquely styled as the exterior. There's the rippled-pond effect on the headliner (pretty cool), bungee cords on the door panels (kind of useless), and, most prominent, that shag-rug toupee on the dash. Kitman called it "the automotive equivalent of the soul patch some male hipsters sport beneath their lower lip; what's the point beyond curious decoration?" It is not a place to store cell phones or coins. "We placed such items on the fuzz," he added, "only to send them flying into the windshield, the A-pillars, and ultimately the floor at the first corner." Zen answer: Must everything have a purpose?
Items were better stored in the rear, where we found that the deep well behind the back seats was a great place for grocery bags or a couple of roller suitcases. The rear seatbacks fold down, but the rear seats don't tumble to make a flat floor. Thus, while the Cube's basic shape still creates a practical cargo hold, it's no Honda Fit in the versatility department.
In the reliability department, we have little to report, except that the Cube sailed through more than 24,000 miles without requiring a single repair.
Even after a year, the Cube's geek chic never entirely receded into the background, although we could start thinking about it in more conventional ways. It's not a great car, but it's certainly an interesting --and kind of endearing -- mobile device. "There's a lot about the Cube that seems willfully weird," said Kitman, in summary. "And yet in daily use, it proved to be a reasonable, perfectly useful, and pleasant companion."
The original Cube went on sale in Japan in 1998. A rather dowdy, conventional-looking, boxy subcompact, it was largely ignored by the marketplace.
The Cube's second iteration appeared in 2002, this time embracing its inner square. The new, weirder, more cubic Cube became a hit in Japan.
In March 2008, the Denki (electric) Cube concept appeared at the New York auto show. An EV show-car version of the departing second-generation Cube, the Denki concept helped prepare Americans for the arrival of the ultrasquare compact. Nissan announced that the upcoming third-generation model would be sold in the United States the next year.
The new Cube made its U.S. debut in the fall of 2008 at the Los Angeles auto show. The following May, the car went on sale as a 2009 model in base, S, SL, and Kro'm trims. For the 2010 model year, the S model's stereo added an iPod adapter, two more speakers (six total), MP3 CD-ROM playback, a radio data system, and speed-sensitive volume control. The S and SL models got new standard Bluetooth and a leather-wrapped steering wheel; a 4.3-inch color monitor and backup camera became part of the SL preferred package. The Kro'm model added the color monitor, a rear camera, and push-button ignition as standard equipment.
For 2011, the Cube is newly available with a touch-screen navigation system.
2009 Nissan Cube
Rating 3.5 stars out of 5
Body style 4-door station wagon
Accommodation 5 passengers
Construction steel unibody
Engine 16-valve dohc i-4
Displacement 1.8 liters (110 cubic inches)
Horsepower 122 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque 127 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission continuously variable
Steering electrically assisted
Lock-to-lock 3.3 turns
Turning circle 33.4 ft
Suspension, front strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear torsion beam, coil springs
Brakes f/r vented discs/drums, abs
Tires Toyo proxes a20
Tire size 195/55vr-16
Headroom f/r 42.6/40.2 in
Legroom f/r 42.4/35.5 in
Shoulder room f/r 52.2/52.4 in
L x W x H 156.7 x 66.7 x 65.0 in
Wheelbase 99.6 in
Track f/r 58.1/58.3 in
Weight 2880 lb
Weight dist. f/r 59.0/41.0%
Cargo capacity 11.4/58.1 cu ft
(rear seats up/down)
Fuel capacity 13.2 gallons
Est. fuel range 350 miles
Fuel grade 87 octane
Our test results
0-60 mph 9.2 sec
0-100 mph 31.9 sec
1/4-mile 17.3 sec @ 81 mph
30-70 mph passing 11.0 sec
Peak acceleration 0.40 g
Top speed 105 mph
Cornering l/r 0.84/0.79 g
70-0 mph braking 175 ft
Peak braking 0.96 g
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; automatic climate control; cruise control; trip computer; power windows, mirrors, and door locks; tilting steering column; premium seat fabric; AM/FM radio with CD player, iPod adapter, and auxiliary audio input; front, side, and side curtain air bags
SL preferred package, $1600 (intelligent key, push-button ignition, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, foglights, Bluetooth, rear parking sensors, XM, upgraded speakers, Rockford Fosgate subwoofer); interior designer package (carpeted floor and cargo-area mats, shag dash topper, front-door bungees), $230; splash guards, $150
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
5178 mi: $33.64
9097 mi: $33.64
14,186 mi: $136.53
20,622 mi: $33.64
24,006 mi: $59.02
20,622 mi: Replace passenger-side curtain air bag; install filler-neck shield on fuel-filler recirculation tube
2426 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Michelin X-Ice Xi2 winter tires, $587.89
6208 mi: Remount stock Toyo Proxes A20 all-season tires, $100.54
22,107 mi: Remount Michelin winter tires, $100.54
EPA city/hwy/combined 28/30/29 mpg
Observed 27 mpg
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.15 ($0.42 including depreciation)