2010 Nissan Cube First Drive

Why square is here to stay

2010 Nissan Cube First Drive
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All right, confession time: this is the first vehicle I’ve ever driven that I haven’t opened the hood. It’d be an insult. Really. I usually drive a vehicle for a little bit, pull over, and prop open the hood to either point and laugh (“Ha! Ha!”) at the engine’s pathetic-ness, or marvel at its spleen squashing superformance.

FAST FACTS

1. Pricing for the new Nissan Cube ranges from just under $14,000 to around $19,000.

2. Under all the funky bodywork the Cube is essentially a Nissan Versa and shares that vehicle’s 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine with 122hp and 127 ft-lbs of torque.

3. Standard safety features include six airbags as well as traction and stability control.

4. An optional push-button ignition is available with Nissan’s Smart-Key option.

Doing that on the Cube is like playing with your iPhone for a few hours, then tearing off the backside to marvel at all those microchips and things. The Cube’s engine makes it move, and that’s fine. It’s not the point — this square is more than the sum of its parts.

BOXES, REFINED BY NATURE

Nissan says that the last-generation Cube was inspired by consumer product design, but the current one was softened by organic forms. Look at it from 100 feet away, and it looks like a silly box on top of four silly, small wheels. Step closer, and you appreciate details like the connected headlights (a bulldog wearing sunglasses, apparently), the comparatively wide stance (helped by how the sides bow out, like a love handle muffin top over too-tight khakis), and the rounded side windows.

Apparently, the wide, angled window frames are supposed to mimic picture frames, so when people see you on the road, it’s like you’re sitting in a picture. Interesting, but I can’t wait to see the Cube’s windows framing some sort of debauchery, like single-finger salutes or lewd behavior, as 20-somethings are likely to do.

Inside, the headliner is designed to look like a drop of water rippling through a lake, and does a convincing job. The same wavy form is repeated in the cupholders, outside the car on the left side, and in about 20 other spots around the car.

And just like the Smart fortwo, there are little “bulbs” around the cabin you can hang things from, or attach accessories to (like bungee cords) to make the interior even more useful.

Then there’s the asymmetrical rear window and door that swings out to three different steps, depending on how close objects are behind you. The really neat part of the door is its ability to shelter you from moving traffic. I know, a 20 lb. door isn’t going to stop a speeding truck, but the feeling of security during curbside pickups is much appreciated.

NOT NOW, SPEED RACER

You couldn’t blow the lid off this box if you tried. Underneath is the Versa’s platform, which means a 6-speed manual or CVT (base and S trims, SL trim is CVT-only), mated to a 122 horsepower 4-cylind… I couldn’t be bothered. It doesn’t matter.

It does 28 mpg city, 30 mpg highway with the CVT, manual transmission models should be slightly better.

HOW TO: DRIVE A $14,000 SUPERCAR

By now, you should know that the Cube isn’t about performance. It’s about conversation. Yeah, that sounds like a marketing brief — but in no other car have I wanted to just crank up the music, recline in the back seat, and relax.

The first bump you hit with the Cube reveals its character. The seat foam is actually of the same (higher-quality) grade Nissan uses for the Maxima, so your backside just sort of floats in La-Z-Boy comfort. The seats themselves are almost unsculpted, more like couch cushions than something you’d find in a modern car.

In the back seat, my 6’2” frame was completely comfortable, too. The rear seat slides back and forth, reclines, and leaves enough headroom for a top bunk. All that legroom means trunk space suffers slightly as a result, but is still wider, deeper, and longer than what you’d find in a MINI Cooper — and more useful than the Volkswagen New Beetle’s trunk. My only gripe is that the rear seats don’t fold completely flat.

Nissan will offer a special-order cargo version of the Cube without a back seat…just in case you don’t have enough friends to fill the rear seats.

IN THIS BOX

Standard for a shade under $14,000? A car shaped like a box, four 15-inch wheels with hubcaps, cloth seats, 2-speaker stereo (with auxiliary input), power windows, power mirrors, remote keyless entry…and not much else. Thankfully, every Cube gets a full compliment of safety features as standard: 6 airbags, traction control, stability control, and active head restraints to reduce whiplash.

Top-level Cubes will top out at around $19,000 and are mechanically identical to lower-spec models. However, optional niceties like 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, “Nissan Intelligent Key” with push button start, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, Rockford Fosgate subwoofer with six speakers, XM satellite radio, and an iPod interface are found on more expensive trim levels.

And if that’s not enough, at launch Nissan will offer over 40 accessories, from the lame (front nose mask, “sports horn”, license plate frames), to the useful (halogen daytime running lights, utility pouches, cargo organizer), to the awesome (gunmetal alloy wheels, bodykits, and unique front grilles.)

THE VERDICT

Nissan calls this a “crossover” which is definitely lame marketing-speak, because if you’re shopping for an iconic small car, you’re going to be visiting MINI, Volkswagen, Scion and Kia (for the Soul) dealerships.

Yes, it’s not cheap. Yes, it’s not fast. Yes, it may be a fad. But the Cube is an object you want to experience, drive places and enjoy time with. It’s a car that is both completely unremarkable from a technical standpoint, but wonderful from the design and human perspectives.

I think it’s here to stay. But don’t refer to it as “just a car.”

PLUS

Designed down to every last detail; like driving a concept car People let you ahead in traffic Incredible conversation piece

MINUS

Not for the anti-social; best enjoyed with friends You’re paying a premium for a unique small car Some accessories (like the shag carpet) may make the Cube look dated in a few years

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