First Drive: 2009 Nissan Cube

Hirohiko Mochizuki

"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 Scion xB. 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."

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