Don't we all have a happy childhood memory of our parents buying a new refrigerator — and getting to play in the giant delivery box? Within minutes, the box was refashioned into a clubhouse. Or it became a sled and we piled in for a tumble down the nearest hill.
So we can't help but imagine that box-shape small cars like the 2008 Scion xB and 2008 Nissan Cube have been born out of such whimsy. Mostly, though, they're a response to the maddening parking constraints and fuel-consumption taxes inherent to driving a car in Japan.
In the United States, boxy compacts are still a left-of-center novelty. People buy the Scion xB and Honda Element for their space-efficiency, versatility and neo-Bauhaus design. And they certainly don't mind the kind of gas mileage that's made possible by thrifty four-cylinder engines. While sales of such cars are modest (about 60,000 Scion xBs were sold in 2006, for example), the xB in particular is a draw for young buyers, who are worth their weight in iPods.
Nissan is finally convinced there are enough of you to buy its Cube, a boxy car so far out on the funk continuum that the Element and xB might as well be Corollas. We expect an official announcement that it'll be coming to the U.S. sometime soon, perhaps at the 2008 New York Auto Show. A redesign will likely follow, and perhaps a year from now, we'll see a new, U.S.-ready Nissan Cube.
In the meantime, a handful of current-generation Japanese-spec Cubes have immigrated to the U.S. for our education and amusement. A few of them have been placed in the care of students at Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute and New York's Pratt Institute, where films are being made that will screen at the 2008 New York Auto Show as part of Nissan's "Cube-ism: Automobile Meets Art" project.
This buttercup-color 2008 Nissan Cube stopped off at our office, and since we already have a 2008 Scion xB in our long-term test fleet, you know what happened next.
Check That Return Address
Be forewarned this isn't one of our serious comparison tests. References to Hello Kitty are likely, and cars may be variously described as "cute" or "adorable." Also, note that this right-hand-drive Nissan Cube isn't for U.S. sale. We can't even say exactly how much it would cost. All we know is that the price starts around the equivalent of $11,000.
Undoubtedly even a loaded Cube would come in cheaper than our 2008 Scion xB, which, at the time of our purchase, had a base price of $17,180 (it's increased slightly since then), including the optional four-speed automatic transmission. Once we'd added a selection of accessories ranging from a navigation system to cupholder lighting, the Scion ended up at $21,216.
On the surface, the Cube looks a lot less vehicle than the xB. It has a Mini Cooper-size footprint and it's 20 inches shorter overall than both the Scion and Nissan's Versa hatchback.
Under the Nissan's short snout, there's the smallest, most adorable car battery you'll ever see, along with a 1.4-liter inline-4 engine rated at 95 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 100 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. Meanwhile, the xB's proboscis conceals a 2.4-liter inline-4 good for 158 hp at 6,000 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.
The Nissan's equipment list is odd by American standards. To start, it has bench seating front and rear, a layout that requires a column-mounted shift lever for the standard four-speed automatic transmission. (Curiously, Nissan does not offer a manual gearbox at all, though a continuously variable transmission is offered for some models.)
Our test Cube also has a sunroof, automatic climate control and keyless startup — all desirable features that aren't available on the xB — but does without an audio system altogether. Either Japanese buyers really like serenity or they prefer aftermarket electronics. Given the number of Tokyo commuters we've seen watching TV in the car, we have our suspicions.
Also missing are side airbags and stability control, items that are standard on the Scion. Antilock brakes are at least included, and although there's no room for a spare tire, Nissan includes an air pump and a can of Fix-a-Flat.
Strangest of all is our Cube test car's tiny electric motor that furnishes auxiliary drive for the rear wheels. There's no battery pack, so it runs off the electrical system. It's not meant to turn this front-wheel-drive car into a true 4x4. Rather, you're supposed to switch the motor on manually in the event your Cube gets stuck in the mud. Probably this would be cute to watch.
13.8 Seconds, and That's Not for the Quarter-Mile
Less adorable is the sound and feel of accelerating to highway speeds in the Nissan Cube. This is a car calibrated for creeping in traffic — the kind that clusters in Japanese cities and never lets up. Throwing it into Southern California freeways with their 75-mph pace isn't the nicest thing we could have done to it, but it survived. Only during a steady 3,000-foot climb to a 4,500-foot pass on Interstate 5 did the power prove truly inadequate.
The fact that the Cube averaged only 22.7 mpg — 1 mpg less than our xB's average fuel economy so far during our testing — tells you how hard its 1.4-liter works. It also tells you the four-speed automatic dutifully holds 2nd gear for long stretches.
For all its efforts, the Nissan Cube owns the distinction of being the slowest car we've ever tested, beating out (well, maybe that's not the right word) even the first-generation Toyota Prius. It bustles itself up to 60 mph in 13.8 seconds. Six seconds later (that's 19.8 seconds altogether for those of you keeping track at home), it goes through the quarter-mile at 67.4 mph.
In comparison, the Scion xB feels very, very normal. Its engine has a nice, flat torque curve, so the xB feels as capable mixing it up on the freeway as it does in city traffic. Sometimes the four-speed automatic driving its front wheels is slow to downshift, but with power to spare, this is annoying rather than life-threatening. The xB runs to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds and then hits the quarter-mile mark in 16.5 seconds at 83.1 mph — good numbers for an economy car of any shape.
Although the Nissan Cube and Scion xB both have similar suspension layouts (front MacPherson struts with a torsion-beam rear suspension) and electric-assist power steering, that's where the chassis similarities end.
Here again, the Cube is the product of an environment where drivers don't have the luxury of going very fast or cornering with gusto, and evidently, Nissan didn't invest a great deal of resources in fine-tuning this car's road manners.
On back roads, the Cube's very soft suspension calibration and skinny 185/60R15 Falken Ziex ZE912 tires give it the roll control of a Simmons Beautyrest. Finding any kind of groove through the slalom at the test track proves tricky, and the Cube achieves just 56.9 mph.
Braking tests are more encouraging. The Nissan stops from 60 mph in 120 feet, with minimal fade despite its rear drum brakes. Your confidence can be low in normal traffic, however, until you get used to the substantial front-end dive.
At least the Cube's ride is stable all the way up to 80 mph, though expansion joints can unsettle its precarious equilibrium. The steering weights up decently, but it's fidgety on-center and often requires correction. Not helping in this regard is the Cube's vulnerability to crosswinds.
Get back in the 2008 Scion xB after experiencing all this and you instantly relax. Its ride is consistently composed, as you would expect of a car that's 500 pounds heavier and has a wheelbase that's 7 inches longer and a track that's 2 inches wider.
Stiffer suspension tuning and larger 205/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires make for crisper handling and better balance from the Scion on any type of road, too. The steering doesn't give much feedback from the road, but it feels stable on-center with a sporty heft off-center.
The xB's undefeatable stability control can be an annoyance in the slalom, but once you adjust, the Scion is 8 mph quicker through the cones than the Cube. Its combination of tires and brakes also helps it stop in just 117 feet from 60 mph.
Flat Out and Fully Engaged
You might think the Nissan Cube's poor showing in our instrumented testing tells you everything you need to know about it. But there's a flip side to the Cube's performance that Americans rarely get to experience. And that is the thrill of driving flat-out.
While commuting in a Scion xB, you might find yourself at wide-open throttle during an occasional bout of friskiness (or panic), but otherwise you take it easy.
In the Cube, you rarely have that option. You put the gas pedal to the floor every couple minutes just to keep up. This is driving on the edge, an opportunity to put your GT4-honed hand-eye coordination to work, to be fully engaged in what you're doing. This is one of the few but nonetheless important joys of driving an underpowered car — especially one that looks like a toy.
Enhancing that sense of mastery is the Cube's enormous glass area, which encourages you to attune your senses to everything happening around you. Headroom, as you might imagine, is exceptional, though tight shoulder space and a lack of seat-track travel will have taller drivers running for the xB. Yet sitting in the Scion doesn't give you the same feeling of control. Its high waistline, short glass area and low seating position make you feel secure in a bunkerlike way, but you don't feel very involved when you're in motion.
Given the choice, though, you probably still wouldn't want to drive the Cube every day. But when you're only doing it for a week, it feels like a vacation — a vacation on the other, right-hand-drive side of the car.
History in a Box
Although the Nissan Cube ends up the oddball in this test, this car has proven extremely popular in Japan since its introduction a decade ago. Redesigned in 2003, the Cube actually predates the Toyota bB, which provided the basis for the original Scion xB.
This car became one of Nissan's biggest success stories in the last five to 10 years. It reinvigorated the B-class segment for Nissan. Until then, there were lots of economy-oriented, three-door hatchbacks in the B-segment, but when the Cube came along, it was kind of a fashion statement. It was like it belonged in a furniture showroom rather than a car showroom.
Although the current-gen Cube might be regarded as girly in the U.S., the majority of Japanese Cube owners are male. It might mean that the Cube will be negotiating some interesting gender politics in the U.S. Or maybe it's on the leading edge of a developing trend.
No matter what, Nissan must decide if it wants to make the next Cube bigger to better accommodate big American lifestyles. The answer to the size dilemma probably lies within the hypnotically minty-green shell of our 2008 Scion xB.
The first-gen xB was a subcompact just like the Cube, though a bit longer. Its angular, mini-truck body made it the coolest cheap car on U.S. roads at its 2004 debut. But Toyota thought Americans would prefer a bigger, more powerful xB, and the second-gen model is certainly that. It's not a direct-line successor to the bB, which lives on in Japan as a subcompact. Instead, the 2008 Scion xB is exactly what it appears to be: a creatively styled Corolla. In Japan, it's called Corolla Rumion
Based solely on the xB's blowout victory in this test, it's hard to knock Scion's decision. Plus, it's selling well and, despite its extra bulk, apparently still hip.
Indeed, a U.S.-friendly Nissan Cube will need a little more engine and a little more chassis sophistication, but we hope Nissan won't get too serious on us. Like a refrigerator box, a box-shaped car should leave something to its owner's imagination.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
There was very little overlap in feature content between these two boxy cars. On the whole, the 2008 Scion xB is much better equipped, but the Nissan Cube comes with many interesting items you might not have realized you wanted — and which quickly become indispensable.
The scoring of features is based upon whether a test vehicle has been equipped with a particular feature as standard, optional and included in our as-tested price, optional but not included, or not available at all on that particular model.
|| 2008 Nissan Cube
|| 2008 Scion xB
|Automatic climate control
|Fore/aft-adjustable rear bench
|Four-wheel disc brakes
|Front bench seat
|Seat-mounted side airbags
|Side curtain airbags (front and rear)
N/A: Not Available
Audio system: We're sure there are many cool audio options for the Nissan Cube on the Japanese aftermarket, but we like the idea of at least getting a basic head unit with an auxiliary jack as standard fare.
Automatic climate control: Twisting the xB's temperature dial can be such a hassle when you're, well, lazy. We prefer the Cube, where we set the thermostat at 19 degrees C and activate the ionizing filter.
Fore/aft-adjustable rear bench: This feature isn't just about opening up more rear legroom; it also allows you to mix cargo and passenger space.
Four-wheel disc brakes: Larger tires probably had much to do with the 2008 Scion xB's better braking performance. But for the most part, a full set of discs will provide shorter stops and better heat capacity for fade resistance.
Front bench seat: Bench seats are coming back. We can feel it. And they make a lot of sense in a box-shaped car, because the whole point is space-efficiency, right?
Keyless start: You can start the Nissan Cube without a key. You can also load laundry into the Cube without fumbling with the remote. This is useful.
Seat-mounted side airbags: As cute as the Cube is, the idea of an SUV smashing into the side of it is not so cute — because there are no side airbags to protect us.
Side curtain airbags (front and rear): When you're driving a small car with huge vertical expanses, you're going to want maximum melon protection. The Japanese-spec Cube has none.