By: EZRA DYERPublished: May 29, 2009
NORMALLY, I try to tune out the marketing mumbo-jumbo dished out to the press at new-car introductions. That’s typically quite easy, since hearing about “prioritized messaging points” and “bi-modal buyer distribution” is boring whether the subject is an economy car or a Ferrari 430 Scuderia. But in the case of the new 2009 Cube, I think Nissan’s marketing strategy for its boxy creation says a lot about the car’s mission.
In explaining the Cube gestalt, Nissan uses the tagline “mobile device,” and the company clearly hopes that this car will gain the social cachet of an Apple product (a point driven home in a Cube PowerPoint presentation showing photos of an iPod, an iPhone and the iTunes logo).
The problem with this comparison is that Apple products tend to be sexy and expensive relative to their competition — they’re status symbols — whereas the Cube is defiantly offbeat and affordable. If you’re looking for the automotive iPhone, it’s not the Cube. It’s the BMW 335i.
The Cube is more like a Nintendo Wii: accessible, fun and deeply strange in an authentically Japanese way. Originally introduced in Japan in 1998, this is now the third iteration of the Cube and the first one to find its way to the United States.
My view on bringing wacky Japanese-market cars here is that companies should strive to keep the product as un-Americanized as possible. Offer a shrimp-scented air freshener and a holographic hood ornament and a GPS system that includes maps of other planets: the whole appeal lies in cultural authenticity. This kind of car should be so Japanese that it makes me want to wear a Hello Kitty backpack, watch incomprehensible game shows and eat whales. I mean, research whales.
The Cube is undiluted Tokyo chic, from its asymmetrical rear window to its shag-carpet dashboard pad to the bungee cords on the doors, which Nissan says are useful for holding “stuffed driving mascots.”
Speaking of stuffed driving mascots, Nissan is prepared for a couple of those to occupy the front seats, as one of the Cube’s available accessories is an eight-inch seat belt extender. I suspect that this option isn’t popular in Japan.
The interior is rife with interesting touches. The headliner is imprinted with a ripple texture that spreads in concentric circles from the dome light. Available LED ambient lighting bathes the footwells and console in the hue of your choice. To the left of the steering wheel, there’s a small cup holder that seems so narrow as to be useless. I wondered what would fit in there and then it dawned on me: a slim can of Red Bull.
No more trying to keep your Red Bull in a standard cup holder only to have it tip over and spill on your extreme downhill freestyle unicycle equipment.
The fact that Nissan sees the Cube as a design statement first, and a car second, comes through in the driving experience. Unlike a Scion xB, which maintains some pretense of performance (plus-size rims and a supercharger are available, for instance), the Cube’s hardware is resolutely mellow. You get 15- or 16-inch wheels, a 1.8-liter 122-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and either a continuously variable automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual.
There are four Cube trim levels, beginning with the $14,710 Cube 1.8 and culminating with the $20,090 1.8 Krom. The largest standalone option, available on the midlevel models, is the $2,550 “Ginormous package,” which includes an exterior aero kit and interior accessories like illuminated door-sill kick plates.
If you don’t see the point of tacking aerodynamic gear on something named the Cube, then maybe your appetite for accessories is neither gigantic nor enormous enough for the Ginormous package.
The 1.8 S model, at $15,410, is the lowest-price Cube available with the automatic transmission. Normally, I’d counsel a manual transmission over the variable automatic, but the C.V.T. seems well-suited to the Cube’s persona. If you’re driving in a relaxed manner, the C.V.T. matches the mood by keeping the engine speed low and constant, imparting the feeling that the car is propelled by some kind of distant unseen force, rather than by an engine borrowed from the Versa subcompact. The C.V.T.’s ability to make the most of the 1.8-liter motor is reflected in its impressive city fuel economy rating of 28 miles a gallon (30 m.p.g. on the highway). The manual Cube manages 24/29.
And the C.V.T.’s consistent disdain for high r.p.m.’s helps to disguise the 4-cylinder’s unpleasant, overexerted buzz at high speeds.
But then, the Cube isn’t about speed. It’s about delivering raw Japanese funkiness to people who don’t particularly care about cars — or don’t have a full say in the matter, anyway, since their parents are footing the bill.
On one hand, you might want your high-school or college-age progeny driving around in a Cube because it’s slow, has six air bags and a stability-control system. On the other hand, it also features a “Jacuzzi lounge” interior layout. I’m not sure what a Jacuzzi lounge is, but I don’t think I approve.
The Cube is cheerfully bizarre, and I appreciate that. It’s not a riot to drive, but in this case, the driving experience is really beside the point. The kids don’t care about that noise, pops. They want connectivity. They want a car that’s a rolling Tweet about a new iPhone app from the Jonas Brothers.
I, however, want a car that doesn’t look like a myopic washing machine, but I’m a lame old guy of 31 who remembers listening to CDs and saying things like, “My modem is taking forever to load this Kozmo.com order.”
Among the subset of weird little boxy Asian runabouts (including the Scion xB, Honda Element and Kia Soul), the Cube is the most outrageous. It’s easy to poke fun at some of the Cube’s egregious silliness, but I admire a car that takes chances the way the Cube does.
As with an avant-garde piece of architecture, some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. Either way, it forces you to have an opinion, because the Cube is brimming with an attribute not usually abundant in a $15,000 car: personality.