Preview Drive: 2009 Nissan cube

Asymmetric appearance jars at first, but distinctive crossover wagon should command attention from both young and old car-shoppers

by James M. Flammang

2009 Nissan cube

MIAMI, Florida - Nothing on the market in the U.S. looks anything like the new cube, which Nissan is introducing this spring as a late 2009 model. Poised to compete against the youth-oriented Scion xB and Kia's recently-launched Soul, the cube (Nissan shuns the capital letter for this car's name) actually is now in its third generation. Why haven't most of us heard of it? Because the first two versions never made it to North America.

Nissan calls the cube a small crossover; others might deem it a hatchback. Though the Scion xB is a principal competitor, Nissan stresses that the cube is not an "xB copycat," considering that it came out in Japan long before the first-generation xB.

A single styling theme marks the cube: asymmetry. Few vehicles even attempt to be other than evenly symmetrical, but Nissan designers never held back on the concept. "Cubeness for us is asymmetry," said Larry Dominique, vice-president of product planning. That's most evident at the rear, where a thick roof pillar is externally visible only on one side of the car. Rather than a raise-up liftgate, the cube gets a side-opening rear door.

With a drag coefficient that measures a rather hefty 0.35, the cube is "not our sleekest automobile," Dominique advised. Said to be inspired by the image of a "bulldog in sunglasses," the cube is built on a 99.5-inch wheelbase and measures 156.7 inches long overall. That makes it more than 10 inches shorter than a Scion xB, which is also markedly taller. What Nissan calls "city-friendly" visibility relies upon large, tall windows. Nissan also promotes the cube's tight turning radius: 33.4 feet, promising tempting maneuverability.

Beneath the stubby hood sits a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, developing 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. Depending on model, the front-wheel-drive cube may have an Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a six-speed manual gearbox. With the CVT, Nissan promotes a fuel-economy estimate of 28 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway - substantially higher than the Scion xB.

Six airbags are standard, along with Vehicle Dynamic Control and traction control. Antilock braking incorporates electronic brake-force distribution, as well as Brake Assist that can help in emergency halts. In what Nissan calls a "lounge" layout for a "spa-like interior," rear legroom measures 35.5 inches; backseat headroom, a sizable 40.2 inches.

The first two cube generations were designed in Japan and limited to Japan, starting with a basic "High Box" model. The new generation is intended to be a global automobile.

"It's not about racing around the streets," said design vice-president Bruce Campbell. Meant to provide a "social experience," the cube is all about good vision; great vision." This model "had to be an asymmetrical design," he added, noting that it even looks good in a museum environment. Campbell also explained that the cube was "truly designed from the inside out," adding that a "memorable, pure design is its signature."

When the cube goes on sale in early May, three versions will be offered:
• Base 1.8, with manual shift (expected to account for 10 percent of sales).
• 1.8 S, with either a manual gearbox or the CVT.
• 1.8 SL, offered only with CVT and expected to be the most popular initially.

Nissan also will offer a limited-production 1.8 Krom edition of the cube, from its Specialty Vehicles Group. Starting with the S-level cube, the Krom edition gets such features as integrated side sills, a unique rear spoiler, simulated rear diffuser, and a modified grille and fascia. Seat fabric is unique, and the special edition gets 20-color interior illumination.

Unlike some manufacturers who target youthful customers with a passion, Nissan acknowledges that some folks age 50 and up will buy a cube, impressed by its utility. In statistical terms, Nissan calls it a Bi-modal Buyer Age Distribution. Nevertheless, the prime market consists of "Echo Boomers," typically in their 20s, with a personal income around $25,000 per year. According to marketer Phil O'Connor, America has nearly as many "Echo Boomers" (born in 1982-94) as "Baby Boomers" (1946-64).

Cube fits right into urban lifestyle of South Beach area

One of the friendliest compact vehicles around, the cube exudes personality and uniqueness. Stepping into and exiting from the starkly upright interior is a snap. You feel as if you're sitting especially upright, too, in keeping with the layout.

Maneuvering neatly and delivering quite a pleasant ride, the cube doesn't exactly smother bumps, but eases over most of them. The ride does get lumpy over undulating surfaces, but remains calm and collected on smooth pavement. Steering effort is modest, but not unduly light; just about right, in fact.

Standard in the step-up SL model, Nissan's continously variable transmisison (CVT) could hardly be more effective, yielding minimal superfluous noise along with ample acceleration,whether from a standstill or to pass/merge. Though easy to shift, the cube's manual gearbox is a bit clunky, issuing sporadic gear whine.

Visibility is terrific, helped by the tall windshield and windows, accompanied by sizable mirrors. The colorfully illuminated speedometer and tachometer are especially easy to read. Except for a bit of buzz on acceleration, the engine is generally pleasantly quiet.

Front occupants get immense headroom and good elbow room. Passenger legs slip into a narrow, but unfettered, space. Seats are basic in appearance but nicely cushioned. In the backseat, side positions offer bountiful headroom and very good leg/toe space. Even the center spot is tolerable, unlike most cars these days. Behind the fold-down rear seats, a deep well holds luggage, but the storage area isn't especially big.

Nissan faces four challenges, according to Larry Dominique:
• Though offered in Japan for a decade, the cube is not well known in the U.S.
• Styling is admittedly "polarizing," not appealing to everyone.
• Cube enters a crowded segment.
• Financing for first-time buyers isn't so easy to find. To deal with that issue, Nissan intends to give "dealers more flexibility to finance" young customers, according to Phil O'Connor.

Prices start at $13,990 (plus $695 destination charge) for the base cube. An S edition goes for $14,690 ($1,000 more with the CVT), while the SL commands $16,790. Topping the list, the limited-edition Krom will sticker for $19,300 (plus the destination charge). As with most cars aimed at the youth market, personalization is a principal motivator. When the cube is launched, 40 accessories will be available.

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© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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