If you want to find out everything you need to know about the 2009 Nissan Cube S, just pull into In-N-Out Burger.
We're living in a drive-thru world, and the Cube is scaled to suit; a little self-contained habitat where life comes to you in a warm paper bag pushed through the driver side window. There in the line at In-N-Out, you've got a panoramic view of your world — neon colors, flashing lights and the big board with all your dining options. There's no reason to hurry, since you're already where you want to be.
Best of all, there's always someplace to put your stuff. A bin, a box, a shelf, a slot with bungee cords. A sliding, folding, tumbling collection of seats that you put together like a puzzle. You never fumble around when you're trying to put something down, because the perfect spot always magically comes to hand.
The fact that the 2009 Nissan Cube S is self-propelled is just a kind of unexpected bonus.
The Blessed Box The box has promised so much. Its shape brings the automobile's functions back to basics even as its 90-degree angles stretch the automobile's imagery in ways that only people who wear shoes made from plaid canvas can understand.
But what's happened to those cheap, boxy cars that were going to change the world? The refreshing cheapness of the Scion xB has been churned through the great big focus group at Toyota, so now it's a Camry in age-inappropriate clothing, comfortable but cheerless. And the Honda Element remains a refugee from the box store, functional but no fun. No wonder the type of person attracted to these cars is so frequently that old guy a couple doors down who cruises the dealer advertisements for cheap, stripped-down cars, the kind that are advertised, "One at this price."
In contrast, the Nissan Cube has been a social phenomenon in Japan since 1998 because it dares to put a face on the boxy car. Now it's here in the U.S., and it's neither tough nor socially responsible. It's just different, something that's not from around here. You either get the Cube's statement in an instant or you never will.
Personal Platform Although the 2009 Nissan Cube looks outsized in pictures, you feel like you can stretch your arms across every dimension. It's really just a Nissan Versa under the skin, and like the front-wheel-drive Versa it propels itself through the streets without much dynamic drama, quietly self-contained. The suspension's simple combination of struts in front and a torsion-beam axle in the rear doesn't promise very much, but so much suspension travel with very relaxed suspension rates makes the Cube feel equally relaxed, like it has nothing to prove.
The Versa's 1.8-liter inline-4 also proves inoffensive, and you're pretty unaware that it commands just 122 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 127 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. You have your choice of a six-speed manual transmission or our tester's continuously variable transmission (CVT). The Cube might be the first car with a CVT and a four-cylinder engine we've driven that doesn't feel like an oversize wind-up toy. An aggressive tip-in for the throttle spools up the CVT pretty quickly, so the 1.8-liter inline-4 also responds quickly away from a stoplight or while cruising in traffic.
Of course, there's some significant engine noise when you work this Versa engine very hard, so you're better served to keep your throttle foot under control and simply cruise down the street, letting the powertrain hum quietly. The whole effect is nicely futuristic. Probably it all works because the CVT isn't harnessed to too much dead weight, as Nissan's specifications tell us that this Cube S weighs 2,829 pounds.
Remulak Is a Place in France Not that you'll be finding 60 mph in the drive-thru life of the city streets, but if you care you'll find that 60 mph comes up in 9.7 seconds from a standstill (9.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The quarter-mile is 17.2 seconds away and you'll be traveling at 78.9 mph when you get there. But really, what would be the point? All your stuff would just slide out of the bins and boxes and shelves, and you'd just have a mess on the floor.
As you cruise down the street, the steering effort is astonishingly light, and the car heels over predictably to the limits of its long-travel suspension on every corner. It's neither ponderous nor sluggish, but it is steadfastly slow. It's kind of French that way, soft yet refined. You can drive it quickly, but you have to think ahead, balance the weight shift into a corner with early left-foot braking and then steer smoothly. If you try to fling the Cube through a corner, it lurches like some French farmer's old Citroën 2CV on the way to market with a backseat full of turnips.
If you can contain yourself, the Cube will do the business when you need it, as it pushes its P195/60HR15 Toyo A20 tires around the skid pad at a respectable 0.80g. The Cube also runs through the slalom at 61.8 mph, although this tall box needs the occasional soft intervention of the stability control to keep itself pointed straight. The S model's standard rear antiroll bar also helps the Cube S wriggle its tail through the slalom gates.
Of course, the types of people meant to drive the Cube (young ones mostly, Nissan tells us, although it admits that old ones are very likely to be helping the young ones make the purchase) are likely to be more concerned about the consequences of speed rather than its attainment. So they'll be impressed by the fact that the Cube features ABS, stability control and curtain-type head-protection airbags as standard equipment.
Personal Space As you look through the Cube's promotional brochures, the interior makes you think of a swimming pool in Palm Springs, lit up beneath the nighttime sky like some fantastic display of mid-century modern design. It's a good idea, but we have to say that even the clever waterlike ripples in the headliner can't quite liven up the gray plastic of the stock interior, so make sure you buy the optional 20-color interior illumination if you want the full Palm Springs effect, and maybe a couple of tiki torches, too.
The Cube's seats also seem to promise the design-y austerity of 1950s furniture, like something from the Design Within Reach catalog. They look like formless thrones of mousehair upholstery, but they're just what you want when you're parked and are wriggling around while eating your Double-Double and casting about for an appropriate soundtrack. There's an auxiliary jack for plugging in your MP3 player, but the Cube doesn't offer any dedicated iPod software.
And you can get comfortable inside the Cube even if you're of American-style dimensions. The blessed box reminds us that humans are best packaged when they're sitting upright with their feet on the floor, and you'll find 42.6 inches of headroom in the front seat and 40.2 in the rear. There are 35.5 inches of legroom in the rear seat, and since this 60/40-split bench seat slides through 6 inches of fore-and-aft movement, more is there if you want it. Best of all, the rear door opens on the passenger side, so you can load stuff easily, a leap of imagination that neither the Honda CR-V nor the Toyota RAV4 have been able to make in the last 20 years. There's even a small mouth detent for curb loading in tight parallel parked situations.
American Driver The 2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 starts at $13,990 with its six-speed manual transmission, then steps up to the Cube 1.8 S with a six-speed manual transmission at $14,690. But if you want a Cube S with the CVT, then you'll be paying $15,690. At the top of the food chain is the Cube 1.8 SL with its CVT at $16,790 and the specialty Krom version of the Cube at $19,370.
Does the 2009 Nissan Cube S fit America? Well, it does and it doesn't.
It's very nice to drive (slowly, of course). Although, the driving position is scaled to suit shorter Japanese drivers, so the steering wheel and the pedals are a little too close. And once you slide the height-adjustable seat a comfortable distance from the wheel, there's no good place to park your elbows, as the doorsill is too far away and the armrest for the seat isn't very substantial. And while the cabin feels open and spacious (so unlike the Scion xB, where light goes to die), the wind whistling at the corners of the superstructure reminds you that you're driving a box.
Meanwhile the Nissan Cube has a unique face, and it intrigues people, who are always guessing it's electric, like some overgrown R/C toy car from Radio Shack. Of course, if you put up cartoon cutouts of the Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion xB and posed bystanders next to them as if they were in a photo booth at a circus sideshow, the Cube would make everybody laugh first. It might be too much, as if it were designed for kids, not grown-ups.
A boxy car makes an interesting social statement. And with the 2009 Nissan Cube S, it's going to be a big statement. Even if you're just parked in the drive-thru lane and giving your order to the squawk box.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says: My first impression? Good — really good, mechanically. Its dynamics are surprising, the ride and NVH quality are solid, and the CVT integration is remarkably good, especially since it's connected to a small-displacement four-cylinder engine. And after a 150-mile drive in one sitting? The 2009 Nissan Cube needs a little tweaking, but not much.
In many of the same ways that the first-gen Honda Fit felt like a Japanese domestic-market (JDM) car that wasn't altered enough for U.S. biometrics, so, too, the Cube has a few ergonomic challenges — and they're familiar ones. The Cube's throttle pedal operates in directions my right ankle does not. By the end of my drive, my shin was aching terribly. The steering wheel is too low and too close to the dash, so I either crowd the pedals to get a comfortable distance to the wheel or stretch out my legs at the expense of arm comfort. A telescoping wheel would solve this. Putting the ironing board-size sun visors down obliterated my view of the road ahead, even with the seat in its lowest position. Finally, the bland interior styling doesn't uphold the promise of its daring exterior design (which I like a lot, by the way).
Going back to the example set by Honda with the Fit, all those shortcomings and more were addressed with the reissue of the all-new 2009 Honda Fit.
I really want to like the 2009 Nissan Cube, I really do. But forced to choose, I'd rather spend time in a new Honda Fit or wait for the Nissan Cube Version 2.0.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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