Vintage Review: 2009 Nissan Cube – Cubism Meets Dali

(Since I’m out on the coast again for a few days, I’m going to do something a bit different and re-run a new car review I did back at TTAC. These were nothing like the in-depth reviews Jim Klein does here after having a new car for a week. I had to go to a dealer and ask if I could take one for a spin. The Cube is quickly slipping into the forgotten past, so I thought it would be interesting to re-read my take on it. Hopefully you do too)

When I was a small child, I would spend hours sitting in a cardboard box pretending it was a car. Now, I spend hours sitting in a car that pretends it’s a box. As a card carrying cubist, I’m always ready to jump in when a new carton appears. The last time I did that, it was about as traumatic as when my older brother tried to duct tape me inside my favorite cardboard “ride”. I couldn’t get out of the gen2 Scion xB, and my review left no doubts about it. My progeny liked the Kia Soul, but it’s not a real genuine box. But a new package has arrived at the local Nissan dealer named Cube no less. So how does it square up?

First a little history lesson in automotive cubism. This is the third generation of Nissan’s box, although the first one, from 1989, was not terribly distinctive given Japan’s long history of tall-boy wagons. Nevertheless, it beat Toyota’s bB (Scion xB) to the Japanese mobile loft market by a year. But the gen2 Cube, (above) which arrived in 2002, became a cult classic. Jonny Lieberman gave a glowing review of a JDM version here.

As much as I like my xBox, the gen2 Cube is way cuter and more playful. If you’re not too self-conscious to drive a box, it might as well be one with some real character. The gen2 Cube has it by the crate-full: asymmetrical rear hatch and windows, a truly inspired B pillar, and a perfectly charming and characterful front end, with none of that xB underbite.

The gen2 Cube has one big problem, though, that it shares with all brilliant designs: where to go from here with the successor generation. Downhill is pretty much the only option when you’re standing at the peak. Well, at least its design decline isn’t anywhere near as bad as the gen2 xB’s descent to hell.

What exactly did the new Cube’s designers do for inspiration? They sat in a Jacuzzi®. Seriously. And what did they do while soaking? Or, more accurately, what did they pass around? The all too obvious answer is to be found in such aqueous details as the ripples in the headliner emanating from the central dome light. Far out, man.

But their real challenge lay with the exterior. The result is best described as cubism meets Dali. The Cube droops and melts, especially at the ends. And its features are all . . . so exaggerated. I wonder why? But in their enhanced efforts to make the Cube more vivid, they spaced the best one: the blacked out A and C pillars made the prominent body-colored B pillar look like it was supporting the delicate roof by itself. It was the single most prominent and delightful Cube element, along with the asymmetrical rear; but it’s gone, up in smoke.

The result is a serious loss of levity (for the Cube, anyway) and not just in looks alone; the Cube has put on 400 lb. All those munchies are taking their toll. And the hot tubbing was obviously an intramural activity, because the Renault Kangoo be bop seems to have sprung from that same fertile session.

All my carping on stylistic details aside, the Cube design still has a lot going for it, and it will undoubtedly be the replacement vehicle of choice for those businesses that use the gen1 xB as rolling billboards. It’s highly distinctive and eye-catching, to say the least, and 99.9% of Americans will never know what they were missing with its delightful predecessor.

Unlike the current xB, the Cube has stayed true to the cubist ideal: the package is almost a dead-ringer for the gen1 xB in all its dimensions. Curiously, even though it’s a tad larger, the Cube still can’t meet some of the gen1 xB’s interior dimensions (42.6″ front headroom vs. 46.6″), or its luggage space (11.4 cf vs. 17.9 cf). Still, there’s plenty of room for hanging your favorite black light posters.

It’s the distant and near-vertical windshield, perfectly vertical doors, upright seating and gobs of headroom that create an effect that is unique in this day of pseudo-coupe sedans. Like a double-cab truck riding on a small car platform, except even better. There is a unique social aspect to riding in one of these boxes: you’re fairly close together, yet there’s a large amount of “social space”, from the shoulders up. Perfect for conversation or passing large bulky objects around.

Okay, I’ve spent 700 words talking about a box, what it’s like to sit in, and what a nice space it is to share with others. How about the other features of the Cube? Well, it sits on the Versa platform and shares its mechanicals. Translated: reasonably competent all-round: a fairly compliant ride (unlike the gen1 xB); light, yet somewhat better than average steering; safe, predictable handling, although not nearly as sporting as the xB, which lacks those extra 400 lb and has a stiffer suspension. Wind noise begins to intrude fairly early.

Performance is decent, with a (just) sub-ten second 0-60. The CVT is what it is, for better or for worse (worse for me). It works well enough, but stick shift for me, please, especially since it’s a six-speed. The EPA rates it at 28/30. That sure beats driving around in a huge double-cab truck with a perpetually empty bed. A little utility trailer will do the job for those twice-a-year runs to the dump.

The Cube’s interior appointments are as good or better than average. Lots of textured and waaavy plastic, but with padding in the right places it’s much nicer than the current xB.

The rear seat passed the 6′4″ Paul Niedermeyer leg room test with flying colors: with the front seat all the way back, my knees were still well-surrounded by free air (the current xB fails). The rear seat also slides, and or course folds to compensate for that little cargo area. At least it’s deep; shopping bags will like snuggling there.

Cube pricing starts at $13,990 decently equipped with all the basics. The S model, which I sampled, starts at $14,690 and includes “premium cloth upholstery and driver’s side arm rest”. So maybe the base model upholstery is a bit Spartan. It’s not like there was one on the lot to check out—C4C has Cubes in tight supply.

I bemoan the fact that a gen2 Cube will forever remain an unattainable cubic ideal for me. But this new Cube will undoubtedly corner a large share of the market for wheeled boxes. It’s practical, efficient, reasonably fun to drive, and almost as much fun to sit in as a Jacuzzi®. Now if they could just get those ripples on the headliner to actually move without having to be under the influence.