2011 Nissan Cube 1.8S (USA)

For many years, the roads of Japan have been populated by an array of cars that have not been exported to western markets, so they are only known outside Asia by dint of a few grey market imports or some judicious use of Google and online searching. One of the many of these vehicles that aroused a modicum of interest was Nissan’s second generation Cube. Over 500 of these cars whose name accurately described their styling came to the UK via the grey import channel between 2003 and 2008. With increasing demand for something different, and solid demand for equally boxy competitors such as Honda’s Element and the Scion xB in the US market, a sector that one of the US automotive buyer’s guides refers to as the “Geek-Chic”, and following a world launch at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, Nissan took the brave step of deciding to export the third generation model to both Europe and America. Sales in Europe were little short of pitiful and the car was pulled in less than a year, but in America, it has fared better. Hertz have some in their fleet, categorised as a Group B car, so available for the same price as a Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris or Chevrolet Aveo and Sonic. I decided to try one out.
Cube is based on the Nissan-Renault Alliance B platform which also underpins cars such as Nissan’s Micra and Note and the third generation Renault Clio. The third generation Cube features more rounded and curved styling than its predecessors, and the back of the car is notable not just for the fact that the tailgate is side hinged, but also that the rear end of the car is not the same on each side, with a wrap around rear window and extra side glass on one side compared to the other. Right hand drive cars have a right hinged tailgate and this is reversed for left hand drive cars. You do have to remember when parked up that you need a lot of clearance at the back of the car  to be able to open the tailgate fully. At launch, Nissan made much of the various styling features of the car, referring to an interior that is inspired by “the enveloping curves of a jacuzzi to create a comfortable and socially relaxing atmosphere”. Other design features include a water ripple motif in the headlining which is repeated on the audio speaker covers and the moulding in the cupholders. Nissan offer a large range of personalisation options for the car, though none of these featured on this rental vehicle. Be that as it may, but the question I wanted to answer was what the car was like to drive.  
Cube is offered with different engines in the various markets of the world where it is (or was) sold: a 1.5 litre petrol engine appears in Japanese spec cars, and in Europe a 1.6 petrol was the initial offering. The car was discontinued before the promised diesel model could make its debut. In America, Cube is fitted with Nissan’s familiar 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engine, which puts out 122 bhp. It is coupled to a CVT gearbox. Although the Cube is neither that large or heavy, it does have some fairly unaerodynamic lines to challenge the powerplant, which means that the car is never likely to prove fast. The engine is refined, though, and it is quite willing and eager, as I already knew from experiencing it in the Versa.  That car features a regular automatic gearbox, but in the Cube, the only self shifting choice is a Continuously Variable Transmission. Previous experience of these gearboxes has generally been disappointing, as most of them struggle to keep the gear ratio in step with the accelerator pedal, making the cars either jerky or sluggish or both. In this installation, though, it seemed to work pretty well, reacting promptly to changes in speed both up and down.  The engine goes about its business in quite a quiet an unobtrusive manner unless it is called upon to some hard work, such as climb a hill, and there is little contribution from the tyres to the decibel level, either, but the wind noise more than makes up for it. Indeed, I reckon this source of disturbance was more prominent than just about any car I have driven for many a year, and was a real irritant. Given the shape and aerodynamics of the Cube, perhaps it should not be all that much of a surprise, but it was certainly a significant disappointment. Aerodynamics are also likely to impact the fuel economy. I used 6 gallons in a test of 158 miles, which comprised a mixture of freeway and country roads in the hills up above Phoenix. That averages out at 26.33 mpg US, or 31.42 mpg Imperial, which is not particularly good for a car of this size. It does not score too well in other driving dynamics, either. The steering was very light and quite vague feeling, which did not encourage the driver to hurl the car into the bends with any sort of aplomb. That may be no bad thing given the relatively high centre of gravity of the Nissan, though despite the fairly noticeable body roll, the handling was not too bad.  The ride is OK, as are the brakes. Visibility is quite good, which is hardly surprising given the large glass area, and the relatively upright pillars.
In keeping with is trendy image aspirations, some aspects of the interior are quite stylised, and none more so than the instruments. The two main dials, which are the speedometer and rev counter, are connected together like an elongated figure of eight lying on its side, and are different colours when illuminated. They are easy to read. A pair of bar charts display fuel gauge and water temperature details. These dials are presented in a single cluster directly in front of the driver. Unlike most cars where the dashboard is flat, that in the Cube curves with the central section more prominent. A large audio unit is presented high up in the centre of the dash. It proved quite hard to reach, and with some fairly fiddly buttons was not that easy to use. Below this are the three rotary dials for the air conditioning functions, which were easy to use. The uppermost dial was semi-translucent. The system proved very effective, which is probably no bad thing given the volume of cabin air that would potentially require either heating up or cooling down. The switch to adjust the mirrors was buried away on the dash just above the driver’s left knee, which was a bit of an inconvenient location, though as this is something which is not needed every day unless you have a variety of drivers, this is not really too much of an ergonomic nuisance. The steering wheel was leather wrapped, and contains repeater buttons for some of the audio functions as well as the cruise control. Chunky column stalks from the Nissan parts bin operate wipers, indicators and lights  The whole ensemble is finished in black, which is probably both a surprise and a disappointment, as you might reasonably expect something that matches the other styling quirks of the Cube. It is made from very hard and low rent feeling plastics, which permeate the whole interior of the car.  
The boxy styling of the Cube leads you to expect that it might be quite spacious inside, and so it proves to be. Indeed, I cannot recall a car of this size with quite so much headroom. A 7 foot tall basketball player wearing a top hat would probably still not touch the roof, so for someone like me there was an acre of space above my head. The windscreen is quite upright and is a surprisingly long way away from the driver, too, as I found out when I reached for the sunvisor. It was a long stretch, and then a surprise that the visor is so big that you could obscure literally the entire view out of the screen. Definitely the largest sunvisor I’ve ever encountered. The rear seats also benefit from the generous headroom. There is ample legroom, thanks largely to the upright seating position. All seats were trimmed in a rather odd material that was something like mouse fur. How durable it would prove to be, I do not know. All the passenger compartment is spacious, the boot is rather less so. The floor area is quite small, though the boot is deep. More space can be created by folding down the asymmetrically split rear seats, but the resulting space is not flat, as the backrest drops onto the cushion, creating an area that is far higher than the boot area itself.  Inside the cabin there are lots of cubby holes, but most of them were so small that I struggled to see what use they could be for anything more than coins. There is a vast glovebox, and the door bins are quite commodious, with a moulding to accommodate a bottle, as well as the obligatory cup holders that feature in the centre console.
Cube is available in three trim levels: base, S and SL. The test car was an S model. This trim offers the option of the CVT transmission that is not available on the Base car, as well standard fitment of a leather wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, an upgraded audio unit with CD and MP3 capability a USB port and cruise control. The SL model is only available with the CVT and further adds climate control, 16″ alloys and an outside temperature sensor. The CVT transmission costs $1000 and the premium for the SL is $1100 over an S  The test car listed at $17,100, The entry level car, with manual gearbox is just $14,700 and is reasonably well trimmed, including  standard traction control, a full complement of air bags, air conditioning, cloth seats with height adjuster, remote central locking, remote mirrors, a trip computer and rear privacy glass.   
The Cube is a hard car to assess. I suspect that prospective purchasers will either love the styling and not really care too much about the driving dynamics, or they will simply not like the style at all and therefore the car will not even make their short list. In purely objective terms, only the wind noise was really irritating, though I did not find the Cube much fun to drive. On that basis, it might be worth considering. Of the rivals, Honda’s Element  has just been discontinued, and I’ve not sampled the Scion xB, but I have driven the Kia Soul. Even in its first incarnation, it was quite capable, and I understand that the 2012 model year revisions have made it significantly better in many respects, including the driving experience. I think that is the style-led small “box” car to pick.
2012-02-10 08:09:43

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *