Us North Americans tend to suffer rather short memories when it comes to cars, and I was reminded of this during my time with the Nissan cube. The cube is, well, different. I remember growing up in the 1970’s, spotting tiny Datsuns, Hondas and Subarus, and these cars looked like they landed from another planet. This was a time when the expression “foreign car” was a spot-on description for these curious beasts from Japan.
Japan never stopped making odd, jaw-dropping small cars, they just stopped importing them here. US-based design studios now cater to our tastes. But the cube is a direct link to the Japanese cars of my childhood, and I am glad it is finally available here in North America. This “mobile device” as Nissan calls it makes the Scion xB look dull in comparison. I knew the cube would add some needed spice to Nissan’s line of affordable cars, but what would be it like to live with one?
Our tester was the top-spec Krom model. On a scale of 1-10 of cooky, the cube is a 10, but the Krom registers at an 11, thanks to Krom-exclusive chomed 16″ wheels and a front bumper fascia that features, well, a lot of chrome. You are going to get noticed driving this car, so be prepared. I received comments ranging from “it looks like an ice cream truck” to “it’s ugly.” Some people laughed, or were simply amused at the sight of it. On the asymmetrical window treatment on the rear, my wife likened the look to a woman wearing a sweater off one of her shoulders. Make no mistake, the cube gets people talking, and be prepared to hear their opinions, good or bad.
Stepping inside the cube, the setting is slightly less controversial, and one is able to appreciate the assets of that funky exterior. What impressed most was the amount of interior space available in such a tiny package. I had room to spare with my 6′ 1″ frame, with loads of headroom. Visibility is excellent all around, helped mostly by the car’s large windows. I was surprised at some of the features that came standard on a car that stickers under $20,000USD, like automatic climate control, auto on/off headlights, an outside temperature display, along with an upgraded stereo with iPod integration and a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer. I was puzzled that XM/Sirius satellite radio is not available on the Krom model but is on other cubes.
What shocked me the most inside was the steering wheel. It feels like plastic, yet there is stitching all around. At first I thought Nissan was trying to fool me into thinking this car had a leather wrapped steering wheel. But I checked the window sticker, and there it is: “Leather Wrapped Steering Wheel.” Nissan, if the leather here makes me think it is actually molded plastic, then the quality of the leather is lacking. What do my hands touch more than any other part of the interior? Right-the steering wheel. You know better. Fix this.
All Nissan cubes are powered by a 1.8L four, rated at 122hp. Having driven the 158hp Scion xB, my expectations were pretty low, but the cube amazed me. Lesser cubes have a choice of a six-speed manual, but top-line cubes (SL and Krom) only have a CVT available. I’m no fan of CVT’s, but this transmission maximized every pony here. Pep around town surprised me, and merging on to a busy highway was no cause for concern. Fuel economy figures of 28/30mpg city/highway only sweeten the deal.
The cube is very easy to drive and maneuver, but felt a little primitive over potholes and rough roads. The flat seats that offer nothing in the way of bolstering are a dead giveaway that the cube is not about carving up twisty roads, so be prepared for your seatbelt to hold you in place when cornering. Steering is quick, the car brakes good enough. But there is no getting around aerodynamics. On the highway, wind noise is prevalent (not an issue in the xB) but not overwhelmingly so. Driving at 70mph on the highway during a steady rain required two firm hands on the wheel, as the cube was suspect to crosswinds.
The concept of a “city car” is slow to resonate with most North Americans, but this is what the cube is. Driving around town, the peppy engine and small size are your best friends, and the cube shines here. The low-effort, swing-open rear door boasts a low lift-over that makes the cube perfect for shopping trips, and the fold-down rear seats open up even more space for those Home Depot trips.
Our cube tester had the optional Interior Designer Package, which included a shag carpet dashboard pad. You heard me-this brand new car featured shag carpeting on the top of the dashboard in the form of a pad, under one square foot. Everyone who saw the shag carpet asked “What is it for? Why is it there?” I’m the car journalist, and even I didn’t know, so I simply told them all “The shag carpet is there for fun.”
And that’s the point of the cube. It is living proof that an econobox price does not have to mean a dull car, and the cube is anything but. Living with the cube, the Krom was a bit too much for me. For my money, I’ll take the cube SL, and spec it with the goodies the Krom gets you without the “bling” bodywork that was funny at first, but wore out fast.