It began the moment that I unlocked the doors. One minute, I was alone, standing next to a boxy little Japanese-market Nissan in a grocery store parking lot. The next, I was surrounded.
"Is that the new Scion xB?" asked one dude.
"No," I answered. "It's a Nissan Cube." Another looked me square in the face and warily asked if I built it in my bedroom. (I was tempted to play along: Yes! And if you think this is crazy, wait'll you see the bed that I built in my garage!) And a third wanted to know if I'd give him a ride in exchange for the contents of his grocery bag. (You are a brave man, sir, but I do not want your doughnuts.)
The Cube generates that kind of reaction from people. Like a Mini Cooper or a Scion xB, the tiny Nissan is remarkably free of class or gender connotations, a car unhindered by the boundaries of age or demographics. Everyone is interested. Everyone has questions. And everyone loves it.
Nissan developed the Cube in the late 1990s for the Japanese market, and while the oddly styled first-generation model is largely forgotten - picture a shrunken, Astro Boy'd Eagle Summit wagon - the second-generation Cube, introduced in 2003, has developed a worldwide following despite the fact that it's never been sold outside Japan. Bolstered in part by Scion's success in the U.S. market, Nissan believes that it can translate homeland box-car sales and rising oil prices into stateside customers. As such, the next Cube is slated to come our way in 2009. Predictably, the PR department at Nissan has cranked into full swing: a pair of 2008 Cubes were loaned to a handful of lucky U.S. film students for a multimedia project, and a few more examples have landed on our shores for media evaluation.
Like all Cubes, our test car sported right-hand drive and Japanese-market features, including the clever left-side C-pillar window that helps reduce blind spots for a right-hand-seated driver. A 95-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine lives under the Cube's stubby hood, along with a column-shifted four-speed automatic. (No manual gearbox is offered.) The whole package, complete with an electronic motor assembly that can power the rear wheels for low-speed four-wheel drive, checks in at a paltry 2535 pounds.
If that figure doesn't sound like much, that's because it isn't. The Cube is a small car, but not in the minimalist way that a Smart ForTwo or a Mini is small. It's real-people small, as if Nissan thoughtfully scaled down a real car instead of simply bolting four wheels onto a small refrigerator/freezer. Two adults (complete with tall hats and/or long legs) can fit comfortably in the back seat, and luggage for four can be stuffed behind them in the cargo area. Yes, the Cube is slow - it trundles to 60 mph in about fourteen seconds, and passing maneuvers have to be planned entire states in advance. And, yes, the comfort-oriented suspension tuning has all the big-league sporting verve of a night at the batting cage with your mom. But these things don't really matter. Because the Cube is a foot shorter than a Mazda MX-5, you can park it in your sleep. Because it's nimble, you find yourself surprised by how much fun it is, regardless of how slow you're going. And because it's cleverly and efficiently laid out, you feel few of the practicality pains normally associated with small cars. If the next Cube is anything like the current one - small, intelligent, and just a little bit goofy - we think it would work in America.
Still not sold? Did I mention the free doughnuts?