If nothing else, the 2009 Nissan Cube's appliance-like looks are good at garnering funny comments ("Where does the detergent go?" "It looks like an aquarium! Where are the fish?"). But is it good at garnering respect in this new age of economy cars? An age where entry-level vehicles have matured from bare-bones tin cans to feature-filled, space-efficient, borderline-fun ways of getting from Point A to Point B?
Available in Japan since 1998, the Cube was redesigned this year and finally makes its U.S. debut. Offered in base, S, SL and Krom ("chrome") trim levels, its pricing starts at less than $15,000. Even at that modest sum, the Cube boasts a generous roster of convenience and safety features that includes air-conditioning, full power accessories, a CD player, stability control and side curtain airbags. The S trim level, which we tested, adds upgraded upholstery, two more speakers, cruise control and a few other minor trinkets.
The 2009 Nissan Cube may look like a box, but as we discovered, it's a mixed bag in terms of its performance and functionality. We know that most people considering a Cube probably won't be as picky when it comes to things such as steering feedback/quickness and corner-carving ability. We imagine they'd be more concerned with ride comfort, cabin space, cargo capacity, fuel economy and price. Although the Cube may not have the athleticism of a Honda Fit (the segment standout), it provides a supple ride, a relatively spacious cabin and comfortable seats. But given the "box it came in" shape, we were disappointed in the Cube's cargo-carrying ability.
In the end, the 2009 Nissan Cube reminded us of a class clown (or as one editor said, a clown car). It may not be the top achiever or the teacher's pet, but it is still good to have around. That said, we can appreciate the Cube's cheeky appeal but feel that for most drivers other choices may be a better, um, "Fit."
Powering the Cube is a 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter inline-4 (one of the more powerful engines in the class) paired to either a six-speed manual or a CVT (continuously variable automatic transmission). Our test car had the latter tranny, giving it a powertrain shared with Nissan's Versa SL.
At 9.7 seconds, the Cube's 0-60-mph sprint performance isn't going to thrill you, but it's more than a second quicker than a Fit automatic. In the cut-and-thrust of city traffic or when merging and passing, the Cube is rarely caught flat-footed. Much of the credit goes to its superb CVT that makes the most of the engine's available power, rather than sucking the life out of it like most other CVTs paired with four-cylinder engines. Drive a Dodge Caliber or Mitsubishi Lancer with a CVT and you'll quickly see what we mean — in those cars you'll get more engine racket than thrust when you lean on the gas.
Coming down from speed, the Cube is likewise solid. Its 124-foot stopping distance from 60 mph is strong in this segment. Furthermore, the brakes have a linear pedal feel and showed no fade after a succession of panic stops. Indeed, the best performance was on the fifth attempt.
Though the 2009 Nissan Cube is pleasant enough around town and on the highway, the first rapid turn reveals its chief downfall — mediocre handling. Running through quick transitions, the too-light steering is slow and the soft, long-travel suspension tuning that provides the plush ride also allows more body roll than we'd like. The net effect is that the Cube feels like a dancer who's a beat or two behind the music. We know this isn't a 370Z, but we'd prefer a little more communication between car and driver.
The Cube's front seats are comfortable for most body types, although they lack lateral support (but that's not much of an issue given the Cube's aversion to clipping corners). Want to wear that Stetson ten-gallon hat? No problem. Shaq could probably wear one while driving the Cube. Taller drivers will, however, lament the lack of a telescoping wheel when the seat is adjusted for their long legs. On the other end of the body type spectrum, shorter drivers were fine and also appreciated the massive sun visors that kept ol' Sol from baking their eyes.
The backseat makes the most of the Cube's tall design, providing a high seat cushion that allows plenty of thigh support and room for longer-limbed passengers. That seat also slides, reclines and has a center fold-down armrest — the latter luxury a rarity in this segment.
On a long freeway trip, the Cube's effortless cruising ability was appreciated. Seventy-five mph is no sweat, though there is a fair amount of wind noise, which isn't surprising given the car's decidedly non-aero shape. Against EPA estimates of 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined, we averaged 27.9 mpg in and around the clogged environs of Los Angeles.
Simple control layouts mark the 2009 Nissan Cube's cabin. The climate control is the old-school, but ideal three-knob style, the no-frills stereo has large preset buttons and the cruise control has easy-to-thumb buttons on the wheel. For the driver, there are two conjoined cupholders on the upper left side of the dash. One is smaller in diameter and is perfect for the official drink of the target demographic — a Red Bull.
In our utility tests, the Cube didn't do as well as expected despite its sliding rear seat that expands cargo space (but limits rear legroom). Though our large travel case fit behind the backseat in its rearmost position, there's nowhere near the space found in the Fit. Our golf clubs wouldn't fit crossways back there and even sliding the backseat to its farthest forward point didn't help — you'd still have to remove woods and awkwardly angle the bag. One exasperated duffer stated he would just lay them across the backseat.
On the upside, there's a well behind the backseats that's ideal for keeping shopping bags from moving around, and with those seats down you'll have more than 50 cubic feet of available space. The stubby proportions of the Cube (it's nearly 2 feet shorter than a Honda Civic) mean you can fit into curbside parking spots most cars must pass up, a huge boon to city dwellers.
Design/Fit and Finish
In addition to the unabashedly boxy styling, the 2009 Nissan Cube also features an asymmetric rear window design. The dark-tinted glass wraps around the right-side D-pillar, giving the illusion of an uninterrupted sweep of glass and leading to the aforementioned aquarium comment.
Compared to the exterior, the interior's monotone design isn't nearly as interesting, apart from a "pebble dropped in a pond" effect on the headliner, speaker grilles and cup holders. The Cube's overall interior quality is about class average, meaning primarily hard plastic trim with some soft-touch material in key places, such as the door panels and armrests. That said, the soft curves and shapes of the cabin are a soothing relief from the more typical hard-edged style employed by most rivals.
Who should consider this vehicle
Fans of the Cubist movement who are looking for an inexpensive, peppy, space-efficient transportation pod.
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