The Nissan Cube is part of a new generation of boxy small cars that can also be viewed as small crossover SUVs. The Cube sports a square, whimsical body design that houses a large, practical cabin. Small and light, the Cube is easy to maneuver, fun to drive and fuel efficient, with an EPA rating of 31 miles per gallon Highway. Yet it's big on the inside. It seats five people, with miles of headroom and acres of cargo space.
Nissan refers to the Cube as a mobile hub, instead of a car, because it is meant as an affordable, moveable gathering place for young people, their friends, and their music. Its back seat reclines for comfort, and it can be deleted for van-like cargo space. Nissan markets its cube in fashionable lower case, like iPhone and smart fortwo.
The Cube was new to the U.S. for 2009, but it has been on sale for a decade in Japan, and the version sold here is actually the third generation of the product. The Nissan Cube predates the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Scion xB, Kia Soul, Toyota Yaris, and Honda Fit, all of which Nissan counts as the Cube's direct competitors. The Cube is built on the same Nissan B platform as the Versa, a roomy subcompact that also competes with those cars.
The Nissan Cube is powered by a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine, the same engine that powers the Nissan Versa in this market. Buyers can choose between a 6-speed manual transmission or the Nissan-built Xtronic continuously variable transmission, or CVT.
We found the Cube to be perky in the big city and able to keep up with the traffic on the highway. Easy to park, it can make a U-turn in the tiniest of spaces. It made us smile, it's cute, it holds a lot of people and cargo, it's zippy, and it can be easily customized with accessories.
The Cube is aimed at younger drivers, but it can certainly be appreciated by older drivers who need a second car as a runabout or weekender, or those in between who are looking to downsize their car payment and fuel bills.
Nissan says its designers had in mind a bulldog wearing sunglasses when they were designing the Cube. This might explain the concave, rounded corners on each of the four side windows, with shorter windows in the front doors and longer windows in the rear. Even more odd (literally) is the Cube's odd number of visible roof pillars: a fairly conventional three on the left side but only two on the right, with the third pillar on right side covered by dark glass. This bit of whimsy, as much as any other, gives the Cube its unique appearance.
The 2011 Nissan Cube gets only minor changes, mostly to equipment in packages. A new SD-card based navigation system with a five-inch color touchscreen is available with XM NavTraffic and a USB port.
The Nissan Cube's looks are controversial. Some will find it cute, while others will think it's one of the uglier cars on the road. It is most identifiable by its upright, asymmetrical appearance. As if to intentionally conflict with the square, vault-like look, the side windows are rounded at the corners and beveled into the surrounding sheet metal.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Cube is the single, hidden roof pillar at the right rear. It creates the illusion of a continuous sweep of glass flowing all the way from just behind the center right door pillar, around the right-rear corner of the vehicle, and across to the left side of the tailgate. There, it meets up with a conventionally visible pillar just where you'd expect to find it holding up the left rear corner of the roof.
Thus the left and right sides of the Cube are decidedly different, and it's this assertive asymmetry that easily trumps the fish-tank side windows as the Cube's most striking visual feature.
The Cube's exterior also features a long, flat roof with built-in ridges for strength and quietness, a tall windshield, tall side windows and large doors, including the left-hinged, right-opening refrigerator rear cargo door.
Base, S, and SL models breathe through three distinct tiers of air intake. At the top, a gray plastic grille with a slotted texture integrates with the main light clusters; it curves up at its bottom center to make room for a simple air slot below it. Below that, a body-colored grille integrates into the bumper, with fog light nacelles at its outboard ends. The appropriately named Krom Edition both simplifies and brightens this arrangement with single rectangular grille between the headlights and a much bigger and bolder opening below that in a more sharply defined bumper; both openings are filled with bight horizontal bars.
Around back, Krom is distinguished by horizontal air slots in its rear bumper, a more defined license-plate niche, and a free-standing rooftop spoiler. Running-board-like side sills complete the Krom's body mods.
Wheels help distinguish the individual members of the Cube family. Base and S models wear plain plastic covers with a six-spoke pattern. SL models upgrade to alloys with four slim double-spokes, a design that looks almost too light for the Cube's visual weight. Krom's more interesting wheels feature eight individual spokes that each meet the hub at a tangent, so they look like they're spinning even when standing still. Other wheels are offered as accessories.
The Cube is built close to the ground, so it is very easy to get into and out of, and the cargo sill is low enough for a child to load groceries over.
Although the Cube's design is quirky on the outside, it's all quite utilitarian on the inside. The Cube's boxy design gives it a huge interior. It has bit 109.1 cubic feet of interior volume overall, which is impressive for a vehicle with such a small footprint.
We found a 6-foot, 4-inch driver has about eight inches of headroom; and leg, hip and shoulder room are equally generous. A six-way manual adjuster allows drivers of all sizes to be comfortable.
The reclining rear seat slides fore and aft more than six inches, enabling moms to deal with backseat kids or babies easily at arm's length or large adults to sit comfortably behind large adults in the front seat. The optional cargo package deletes the rear seats to provide enough space for a rock band's gear. Multi-functional hooks can be detached and moved around the car as needed. Even without the cargo package, the Cube has 58.1 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded, which is as much or more than some larger compact SUVs. Put those seats up and there is a modest 11.4 cubic feet, which is about the same as a small trunk.
The Krom and Preferred Package SL come with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer mounted in the center of the cargo door.
The Cube's interior environment is very basic, and it's obviously built to a price. There are no soft-touch surfaces here. It's all plastic, but it's a thick, sturdy plastic that is appropriate for the class. The look is a bit stylized, with a waveform dashboard accented by rounded elements that echo the rounded windows.
That dashboard features a conventional gauge package, with analog gauges and digital fuel and coolant level meters. The radio is set high on the center stack, with the climate controls in a round cluster below it. These controls are quite simple and easy to use.
There are plenty of places for small items storage, too. At the base of the center stack is a cluster of three cupholders, and the Cube has a large glovebox, with storage cubbies all over the doors and interior. However, as a pretty base vehicle, the Cube lacks a center console bin, which always comes in handy.
Interior design licks include a ripple-effect headliner with concentric circles around the dome light, a theme repeated on the speaker cones (and on the Rockford Fosgate subwoofer when ordered). The Interior Design package includes a round shag carpet that sticks to the dash. It's really not useful and it is pretty much there for the heck of it.
Most vehicles in this class suffer from nondescript handling. Not the Cube. Weighing in at just 2800 pounds in its basic form, the Nissan Cube is surprisingly fun to drive. It's much more responsive and communicative than the Nissan Sentra, Toyota Matrix, Scion xB, Kia Soul, and Suzuki SX4.
The suspension under the Cube is entirely conventional, with MacPherson struts, coil springs and a stabilizer bar up front, and a torsion beam setup with coil springs and a stabilizer bar at the rear. Simple, cheap and effective, this system is tuned to limit body roll in corners, so the Cube feels stable and planted on its relatively skinny, tall tires.
The steering is light and easy, but not ropey; its variable assist is vehicle-speed-sensitive even on the base model. The driver's seating position is nice and high, with really excellent outward vision in all directions. Base and S models ride on P195/60HR15 tires on 15-inch wheels; SL and Krom have slightly lower-profile 195/55VR16 tires on 16-inch wheels, but there are no options larger than that.
One of the driving dynamics that distinguishes the Cube is its 33.4-foot turning circle, the shortest in the class, and more than six feet shorter than some of its competitors, a factor that just makes the Cube more maneuverable in tight places than the other cute little cars.
We found the brakes worked fine in busy, crazy downtown Miami traffic, defending the Cube against tourists, pedestrians, scooters and cabbies, with good power and good pedal modulation. The brakes are discs front and drums rear (drum brakes cost less), but the Cube comes with all the safety features, including traction and yaw control and ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist.
The Cube's relatively light weight doesn't tax the 122-horsepower engine at all. It feels reasonably quick getting away from stoplights and stop signs in urban and suburban settings.
The driving fun is turned up a bit with the 6-speed manual transmission. Despite long throws, the manual is easy to shift and it allows experienced drivers to get the most out of the small engine.
The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, is operated the same way as an automatic transmission: Shift into drive and it does its thing. We found it worked very well with the engine's 127 pound-feet of torque. While some CVTs leave you waiting around for the revs to catch up to the ratios, making for a noisy and clunky driving experience, the Cube's CVT is much more responsive. Most won't even be able to tell the difference between it and a conventional automatic.
With either transmission, the Cube is not a rocket ship, but it more than keeps up with the traffic, and it isn't buzzy or whiny at freeway speeds.
The Cube runs on regular gas, and with the CVT it is EPA-rated at 27/31 mpg City/Highway. The 6-speed manual is somewhat less efficient, at 25/30 mpg.
The looks of the Nissan Cube may be controversial, but its value and practicality are not. Fuel efficient and fun to drive, the Cube holds a lot of people and cargo in an affordable package. It's zippy in traffic, and it can be easily customized. All of these traits make it a fine choice for young buyers or as the second car for a family.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw reported from Miami, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.