Thumbs up: A surprisingly roomy and well equipped people mover.
Thumbs down: Dr. Seuss styling isn’t for everyone, adequate handling makes it a poor choice for driving enthusiasts.
Buy this car if: You like the styling and want a funky-but-practical commuter at a low point of entry.
I’ll come clean: styling aside, I liked the 2010 Nissan cube. It did everything I asked it to, got reasonable fuel mileage, had a decent stereo and came with a CVT that worked well. Inside, large (tinted) windows let in a lot of light and give the illusion that the cube is a much bigger vehicle. I even liked some of the funky designer touches, like the blue backlit “cube” logos on the door sills and the rippled headliner. Maybe I didn’t appreciate the Cat-In-The-Hat asymmetrical exterior design as much as I should have, but I’m not exactly Nissan’s target demographic buyer for the cube.
Let’s start with a little history: the Nissan cube followed the Scion xB as the second box-on-box Japanese mini MPV to be sold in the states. Popular in Japan, mini MPVs are supremely practical for dicing through narrow and crowded city streets, as well as squeezing into parking spaces where you couldn’t even fit the bed of a Ford F150. Style is important to Japanese buyers, and no manufacturer could hope to sell their MPVs unless they had an element of cool about them. Japanese cool is where the cube excels, and that’s not something you can really explain in a car review. When you see the cube in person, you either get it, or you don’t.
Take the interior, for example. Name one other car on the market today that comes with a shag rug dash pad; I certainly can’t. Is it functional? No, and it’s not supposed to be, unless breaking up an otherwise bland expanse of plastic is functional. You either think it’s cool or you walk away scratching your head, just another of the cube’s styling cues that seem to polarize critics and fans. Other funky-but-cool interior treatments are the rippled headliner mentioned above (meant to mimmic the waves caused by a pebble dropped into a pond), the video game style electroluminescent instruments and the variable mood lighting for the footwells. Like I said, you’ll either get it or you won’t.
Get into a cube, and the first thing you’ll notice is that it feels much larger than it really is. Much of this is an optical illusion caused by a tall greenhouse with lots of glass. Wide, unbolstered seats with a stitched and textured fabric also help make the cube feel more like a living room than a commuter car. I don’t think I’d want to spend 16 hours behind the wheel, but the cube is plenty comfortable for even a long daily commute. The driver’s seat is height adjustable, but even on the floor it feels like you’re sitting up high, thanks to the cube’s low beltline. Beginning drivers will feel safe behind the wheel, as outward visibility is excellent and the cube’s size isn’t intimidating.
The steering wheel is tilt adjustable only, but most drivers will find a seat and steering wheel layout that works for them. Wheel mounted controls for audio, cruise control and a Bluetooth integrated phone come standard, which is surprising with the cube’s base price of just over $17k. The backlit tachometer and speedometer are split by an LCD temp gauge, a vehicle information display and an LCD fuel gauge. The cube’s instrument panel also gives you a gear indicator, but I’m not sure how useful this is with a CVT transmission. To the right of the instruments, on top of the dash, sits the stereo. If you ask me, this is where it belongs; it’s where I expect to find the controls and where I can quickly make changes on the fly. If I want more bass, I don’t want to scroll through seven menus to kick it up. Ditto for HVAC, located in the center stack; the controls in the cube are among the best I’ve seen, particularly in an entry level vehicle. Well spaced, easy to interpret and easier to operate, this should be a design standard for all new vehicles.
Slow off the line, the cube accelerates reasonably well once you’re rolling. I’m not a fan of continuously variable transmissions, but the CVT in the cube is about the best I’ve experienced to date. Yes, it still drones and sounds like an automatic that’s been run low on fluid, but unlike many other CVTs, the one in the cube produces reasonable forward motion. With only 122 horsepower on tap, the cube with the CVT still manages to see 60 mph in just under 10 seconds; not exactly sports car territory, but not unreasonable, either. Nissan claims an EPA fuel economy rating of 27 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for the cube, and I saw 27.9 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving. Summertime in Florida isn’t kind to fuel economy, and neither is the cube’s aerodynamic profile, which is more akin to an apartment building than a hypermiling commuter car. I didn’t have a chance to drive the cube in any severe crosswinds, but I’d expect it to handle like any other vehicle with lots of surface area on the sides. If you’re prepared, it’s not a big deal.
You would expect a box on box MPV to handle like a U-Haul truck, but the Nissan cube isn’t half bad if your expectations are reasonable. Nissan stretched the wheelbase and widened the stance for the cube’s third generation, and the car carries the bulk of its weight down low. It’s nose heavy, thanks to the front engine, front wheel drive layout, but handling is acceptable. You’re not going to beat a base Civic in an autocross, but you won’t find yourself white knuckled as you turn into a corner with reasonable speed. If you’re disapponted in the cube’s handling prowess, you’re shopping for the wrong ride.
MPVs are meant to be adaptable to a wide range of uses and cargo configurations, and the cube certainly is. My cube came with an optional cargo organizer tray ($180.00), just the ticket for hauling stuff you want out of sight (like laptops and camera gear). One side of the tray even locks, although it’s more of a convenience feature than a security feature. It may stop your roommate from stealing your beer before you unload it, but it’s not going to stop a guy with serious intent from snatching your camera gear. With the cargo tray in place, the rear seats can be folded flat to give a surprising amount of cargo room. Remove the cargo tray, and the cube gives you a deep, carpeted well behind the rear seats, perfect for hauling stuff that you have to keep in an upright and locked position. The rear seats split 60/40 and slide fore and aft, so you can configure the cube to haul everything from passengers to cargo to surprisingly large dogs.
As for the exterior styling, I’ll give credit to Nissan’s designers for making the cube stand out in a crowd. The asymmetrical rear window and invisible passenger C pillar is a cube design highlight. On lighter colored cubes this really pops, but on my sapphire black tester this styling element disappeared, making the cube looke even more cartoonish. There’s a lot of round surfaces on the cube (fenders fender flares, bumpers, hood, windows, etc.), presumably to offset the plain box-on-box design. This may be Tokyo chic, but it’s not a look I could live with every day. I’d be perfectly happy to get a Nissan cube as a rental car, and I really did enjoy driving my tester, but I don’t see one in my driveway anytime soon.
My tester was an SL version, which has a base price of $18,730.00 and includes such amenities as Nissan’s Intelligent Key and push button start, premium six speaker stereo with Rockford Fosgate subwoofer, XM satellite radio, a rear view camera system and fog lights. Other options on my cube included the previously mentioned cargo organizer, the $230 Interior Design Package (carpeted mats, carpeted cargo area, shag dash topper, front door bungee cords) and the $490 Interior Illumination Package (20 color interior accent lighting, illuminated stainless steel kick plates). The sticker price as equipped came to $20,350, but dropping the illumination package would have brought the price down below the $20k mark.
There are other solid choices in the mini MPV segment, but none are quite as unique as the Nissan cube. As with anything in life, personality goes a long way, and the Nissan cube has that in spades. If you like the styling and Tokyo chic vibe, the cube represents a solid value in a commuter car unique enough to set you apart from the other furry rodents.