The Joker’s famous line, “why so serious?” could be directed at new cars – or a lot of them, anyhow. $200 a piece tires on 18, 19 and even 20 inch rims, 300 horsepower engines, 150 mph top speeds – and $40,000 (and up) MSRPs.
The Nissan Cube is a sanity check; an antidote to all that.
Not that there’s anything wrong with 150 mph top speeds and all the rest of it. It’s just that it’s a lot like professional bodybuilding: There’s lots of flexing and strutting going on but it’s almost entirely for show.
When was the last time you drove 150 MPH? Or even 100? Just asking… .
The Cube, meanwhile, makes sense. And it makes you feel good, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Cube is a stubby, tall and low to the ground box on wheels with five oversized doors and lots of useable room inside.
It is a type of vehicle that’s common in Japan, where everything’s crowded and space – including parking space – is scarce. As the United States – especially urban and suburban areas of the United States – becomes more like crowded Japan, we’ll probably see more vehicles like the Cube.
Prices for the 2011 Cube start at $14, 290 for the base 1.8 model with manual transmission and top out at $21,190 for a 1.8 S Krom Edition with CVT automatic.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
The ’11 Cube gets an updated GPS system with Secure Digital card technology and 5 inch color LCD screen and integrated XM Traffic- plus a new optional color, Golden Ginger.
Easy price, outsized personality.
Fun retro touches – including a shag carpet dashpad option. Oh, behave!
Surprisingly good power; very good gas mileage.
Big box inside can cart around a lot of stuff.
Small box outside means it’ll fit easily in tight parking spots and take up less room in your garage.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
It took this long to get vehicles like this here.
Six-speed manual isn’t available in top-of-the-line SL and Krom versions – even though Conan The Barbarian probably likes to shift gears himself.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Cube comes standard with a 1.8 liter, 122 hp engine – the same powerplant used in the Nissan Versa and some other Nissan models.
A six-speed manual is the standard transmission in all but the higher trim models, which come standard with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic. The CVT is optional on lower trim Cubes.
The six-speed Cube gets to 60 mph in about 9.4 seconds. Far from speedy, but adequate for just trundling around.
Gas mileage for the manual/FWD version is 24 city, 29 highway.
The optional CVT transmission bumps this up a bit to 28 city and 31 highway.
ON THE ROAD
The first thing you notice – after taking in the groovy looking exterior, with its asymmetrical side glass and bulldog-like nose – is the way the windshield bulges outward and extends to the sides, giving you a fantastic forward (and to the side) view. It’s like sitting in a fishbowl.
The A-pillars are more forward than in most cars, too – which eliminates the natural blind spot that can make pulling out from a side street a leap of faith.
Glance up and you’ll see a psychedelic “ripple effect” headliner; it looks like a pool of still water after someone dropped a pebble in. Ahead of you is a happy-looking little gauge pod with all the important readouts, including tachometer, speedo, fuel and temp gauges. There’s a button on the console for the multi-function mood lighting – which has 20 different shades of ’70s.
My test car was finished in a color I haven’t seen since circa 1978 – chocolate brown metallic, with hints of purple.
My parents had a ‘fridge painted this same color when I was a kid.
Acceleration is decent, too.
The Cube is based on the Versa compact sedan and shares the same basic powertrain. Its standard 122 hp engine is stronger than competitors like the (much more expensive) Honda Fit’s 1.5 liter engine (117 hp).
The Kia Soul matches the Cube’s horsepower (122 from its standard 1.6 liter engine – and 142 hp from its optional 2.0 liter engine) and beats its acceleration (0-60 in about 8.7 seconds) by dint of being about 200 pounds lighter.
The Cube does have two drivetrain-related advantages over the Soul, though. The first is that the Kia’s manual transmission is a five speed, not a six speed as in the Nissan. The second is that the Soul’s optional automatic is a conventional automatic, not a CVT. It’s also a four-speed automatic – which is Betamax equipment for a 2011 model vehicle.
The standard six-speed transmission is also an unexpected bonus given the Cube’s lowball MSRP. And Nissan’s CVTs are quite possibly the best such transmissions on the market, perfectly matching gearing at any given moment to engine speed and how deep you’re into the throttle – without the shift-shock lurching between gear changes that characterizes most conventional automatic transmissions.
The Cube may have the aerodynamics of a cinder block propped upright on a roller skate but it has no trouble comfortably maintaining speeds as high as 75 or 80 mph – which means it’s absolutely highway-friendly and road trip-ready. You might think it would be tipsy in the curves given the short (99.6 inch) wheelbase and tall profile (65 inches) but it’s not. I hustled my tester up Bent Mountain (posted 35 mph) at 50-plus with no fuss or muss.
The only weak point I discovered was wind noise intrusion at higher highway speeds of 70 MPH or more. It’s higher than normal but not obnoxiously so.
The Kia Soul is the Cube’s most obvious competitor as far as price range and hipster look/layout – though it’s much more angular and seems to be intended to be at least semi-sporty where the Cube is kind of melty-looking and openly goofy.
It’s also taller-roofed, which results in about two inches more front seat headroom (42.6 inches for the Nissan vs. 40.2 for the Kia). Front leg room in both vehicles is almost exactly the same at 24.2 for the Cube and 42.1 for the Soul. The Cube is also significantly more stubby than the Soul – with an overall length of 156.7 inches compared with 161.6 for the Soul. This is why there’s less room for cargo in the Nissan – with the second row seats up, anyhow (11.4 cubic feet vs. 19.3 cubic feet).
However, with the second row seats folded, the Cube’s total cargo capacity is greater – 58 cubic feet vs. 53 cubic feet. And because of its stubbiness, the Cube can fit into Moped-sized parking spaces, too.
Another big difference between the Cube and its main rival, the Soul, is the layout of the rear gate, which is a one-piece door that opens wide to the side – not up and down as is usual for liftgates. This maximizes access to the rear cargo area. Meanwhile, the extra-tall roofline (and low step-in height) also make the Cube well-suited to carrying objects like refrigerators and other boxes within boxes.
In addition to the jolly mood lighting and funky headliner, the Cube has many thoughtful design touches inside – including a large cup holder molded into the dashboard, to the left of the steering column. This gives you better access to your drink – and helps keep you from spilling it all over the console. Also, the rear seats can be moved back and forth to increase legroom for passengers or space for cargo.
With a base price of just over $14k, the Cube’s only real challenger is the slightly less expensive Soul, which starts at $13,300 and which also comes with a better standard warranty – five years/60,000 miles on the whole car vs. three years/36,000 miles.
Both cars come standard with major options such as AC, power windows and door locks – and offer similar kicky upgrades such as high-contrast trim, body kits, mood lighting – and “price track” similarly when options are added. Nissan offers 40 different accessories to customize/individualize the Cube, too.
But as mentioned above, the Soul has a sportier, well… soul. The Cube is just a Forrest Gumpian happy dude, not looking to race.
The Scion xB ($16,000 to start) and Honda Fit ($15,100) are both more expensive to start and they have less standard power and not as much useable interior space. Arguably, too, the Scion lost its clown car charm when it was redesigned and upsized – while the more mainstream-looking Fit hasn’t got close to the stage presence of either the Cube or the Soul.
As far as safety: Modern structural enhancements and the inclusion of side-impact/curtain air bags, stability control, etc. have made even very small cars like the Cube much safer places to be in than the small cars of the past. Just keep in mind that even perfect “5 Star” crash ratings are defined in relation to other cars in that class, not relative to all cars (including larger, heavier cars).
While a car like the Cube will do well in a crash if the other car happens to be of similar size/weight, it is still at a disadvantage if it’s hit by a large SUV or truck.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Cube makes driving – and buying – a new car fun again.