Monday, August 31, 2009

Reviewed: 2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 SL The box is back.

Looking at the window sticker for the Cube, Nissan calls the vehicle “cube Mobile Device.” Well, that's different. And yes—the Cube is quite different from most cars on the road. It has a funky, techie, avant-garde sort of personality, and calling it a “device” adds to this demeanor.

I connected my iPod to the Cube and listened to one of my favorite artists, Towa Tei, a brilliant DJ from Japan, and the Cube's personality fell into place. As the deep bass from the subwoofer thumped, and the high beeps and blips rang from the tweeters, Tei's “Big Fun” album seemed to be at home in the Cube, which almost felt like a hip, trendy club lounge on wheels. I really like this persona; it feels inviting, fun, and fresh. A feeling much like I had when I bought my 2005 Scion xB.
Pros: Comfortable, stylish, roomy interior; good engine and transmission; unique style
Cons: Front seats lack bolstering; iPod and Bluetooth interface is clunky; not terribly engaging to drive
Overall: The closest thing to the original xB wears a Nissan badge.
When the xB came out in 2004, people either loved the look or hated it; there wasn't much middle ground. It was distinctively small, square, frugal, and edgy—and unapologetic about it. You either got it or you didn't get it.

The uninformed might be quick to call the Cube a ripoff of the Scion xB. However, the Cube has been offered in Japan since 1998, which predates the original Toyota bB by two years in Japan and six years in the U.S., when it appeared as the Scion xB. The latest Cube is actually the third generation, but the first to be sold outside of Asia.

The Cube is targeting the same market as the Kia Soul and the Scion brand, what with its funky interior, scads of options, and special edition models (e.g. the top-of-the-line Krom model). My Scarlet Red Cube 1.8 SL had a sticker price of $19,930, including $2,320 worth of options and a $720 destination charge. The SL model includes things like the CVT transmission, 16” alloy wheels, automatic temperature control, and automatic headlights. (A base Cube can be had for as little as about $14K.) So what sets the Cube apart from other vehicles? Quite a bit of things, starting with its shape.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureEXTERIOR: Love it or hate it
Not since owning my '05 xB have I been in a vehicle that evokes so much opinion from onlookers, of which there were plenty. Throughout the week, I had people tell me they loved the look, and I had people tell me it was the ugliest thing on the road. The styling is definitely polarizing. I happen to fall into the “love it” category.

It's no wonder why the Cube has so many onlookers. Its shape stands out: A bit more far-out than the Kia Soul, yet more intriguing than the current Scion xB or xD. It's both square and rounded at the same time. There aren't any sharp angles, yet it's undeniably boxy. And then there's the distinctive wrap-around rear window, which creates an asymmetrical look at the rear. (There is actually a rear pillar there, but it's just wrapped in glass.)

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureSpeaking of the car's back side, the Cube has a swing-away tailgate instead of a hatchback. The tailgate opens wide to accept whatever you might throw inside. A nice benefit to this tailgate is the fact you can just butt-bump it shut, no hands necessary to pull down a liftgate. I found this useful in a routine trip to Coscto.

This model has the optional Intelligent Key. There's no need to push a button on the key fob to unlock the Cube (this was part of the $1,300 SL Preferred Package). As long as you're in proximity to the vehicle, simply press the little rubber nub on the door handle and it'll open. My wife and I found this useful while carting a case of “Two-Buck Chuck” wine out of Trader Joe's. There was no need to take the fob out of my pocket; I just kept carrying, and my wife opened the rear tailgate. Now that's keyless entry.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureThe Intelligent Key System also includes push-button ignition, located on the dash. When inside, press the brake, push the start/stop button, a few clicks, and the car starts—no key needed—so long as the fob is close by. It does take a bit of getting used to, as I kept reaching for the steering column to turn the car off instead of just pushing the start/stop button again.

INTERIOR: Practical, inviting, and stylish
The Cube's interior is as unique as its exterior. There are stylish features like the ripple-effect headliner, the organic-looking upholstery pattern, and the great-looking (yet compact) gauge cluster. This Cube had the optional $230 Interior Designer Package, which adds carpeted floor- and cargo-area mats, a shag dash topper, and door bungees. I'm totally down with the floor/cargo mats. However, I couldn't find a use for the door bungees or the shag dash pad, and neither could my wife ... who just happens to be an interior designer.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureThe interior's overall feel is really neat. It was a place I wanted to spend time; sort of like a small mobile nightclub, or “a really cool dorm room,” as my friend Jackie said. The front seats are very comfortable, much like cushy lounge chairs. My wife, Mercedes, thought the padding felt like Tempur-Pedic foam. The only downside to these seats is there isn't much side bolstering. I spent nearly all-day in the Cube driving around Portland, and found the seats to be good for long periods of time.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureThe back seat is also comfortable, and there is ample room for passengers. There is a fold-down center arm rest with two cupholers, plus a cup holder in each door. The 60/40 split beach reclines, and also folds down. These seats don't tumble forward or fold 100% flat, forcing a two-tier approach to hauling cargo. However, the rear seats do slide forward on rails, allowing more space behind the rear seats. This rear cargo area is pretty generous. The spare tire is mounted underneath the car, which frees up cargo space inside.

The easy-to-read dash has a speedo, tach, fuel, and temp gauges, as well as an exterior thermometer, average and current MPG readouts, mileage remaining, average speed display, and odometer with trip.

Overall, the interior quality is good, and it is very practical. There are movable knobs to hang bags from, a decent amount of storage, and we never found ourselves looking for a place to put a beverage: There are 11 cup holders.

INTERIOR ODDITIES: Things to get used to
There were a few minor interior oddities. Not deal breakers, rather, things you'd probably get used to. For instance, at first, there's a sensation that you're sitting farther back in the vehicle than you really are; almost like you're sitting mid-ship.

Another couple of things: The glove box opens up directly onto the passenger's legs, and people found it hard to put stuff into it. The sun visors (which might be the largest on earth) were a bit hard to reach, too, especially for shorter passengers (e.g. my 5'4 wife). Finally, the doors never felt like they closed all the way, even though they had. They seemed to flex, and didn't have that vault-like sound when you closed them. Again, all minor things, but worth noting.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureAUDIO/ENTERTAINMENT: Good sound, challenging interfaces
The Cube has a great sounding six-speaker stereo and a tailgate-mounted subwoofer by Rockford Fosgate. I loved listening to this system. There is iPod integration allowing you control the device with the vehicle's head unit, but operation was fairly cumbersome. The head unit does have an additional auxiliary input, and satellite radio too.

This Cube also had Bluetooth connectivity, but I found it frustrating to use. Part of this could be due to the microphone location, which is right above the driver's head. I found myself having to talk to the ceiling in order to get it to work. And even then, half the time it didn't recognize my commands. Also, if you want to simply say the name of the person you want to call, you'll have to set that up ahead of time, as there's no automatic voice recognition for phone book names. In general, it seemed a bit clunky. Conversely, my friend Craig paired his phone to the Cube, and found it to work well. Maybe it just had a hard time understanding my voice, which is possible, since I'm 31 and still waiting for my voice to change … and I've said too much.

In addition, this Cube had the $490 Interior Illumination Package, which consists of 20 different colors of footwell and cup holder lighting, plus illuminated, stainless-steel door sill plates. Simply push a knob in the center console to turn on the illumination. Either choose your favorite hue, have it cycle through all 20, or turn it off. The door sill plates turn on automatically.

SAFTEY: All the acronyms you'll need
Standard safety equipment includes a Traction Control System (TCS), Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) with Brake Assist (BA), a Vehicle Security System (VSS), front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS, side airbags, active head restraints, and an immobilizer (sorry, no acronym for those last few). The Cube has not been crash tested yet.

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureENGINE/DRIVETRAIN: Plenty of power, good economy
The Cube is powered by Nissan's 1.8-liter, 16-valve, 122 hp DOHC four cylinder engine; the same mill found in the Versa. The test vehicle came with Nissan's Xtronic CVT transmission, which I found to be a good match to the engine. Power was ample, especially in the city, where I found sprints to 40 mph brisk. Merging onto the freeway was not a problem, either, and there never seemed to be a lack of oomph.

If you're not familiar with Nissans's CVT, it might make some unexpected noises. There can be a slight whine at slow speeds. Mash the accelerator to the floor, and it almost sounds like the transmission is slipping, but it's not. The CVT works well in the Cube, and I actually enjoyed it. Coming from a die-hard manual transmission guy, that's a big deal. The Cube is also available with a six-speed manual if you prefer. Fuel economy is rated at 28/30, and I hit 28 on mostly city driving.

I found the vehicle to excel in the city, though, thanks to a combination of its small size, ample low-speed power, quick steering, and very upright driving position with good external visibility. The rear sonar system (part of the preferred package) is a helpful feature when parallel parking, too. A nice feature for a small car.

At highway speeds, the Cube drives effortlessly, although wind noise is pronounced over 40 mph. The combination of cushy seats, cruise control, and those 11 cup holders might make this a great little road-trip vehicle, too!

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureSUSPENSION: A comfortable cruiser, not a corner carver
Nissan's “mobile device” rides well, thanks to a combination of soft seats and a soft suspension, making the Cube a good cruiser, but not much of a corner-carver. The Cube leans quite a bit in turns, and this is accentuated by the lack of side bolstering in the front seats. It never feels scary, just soft.

Rolling stock consists of 195/55/16 all-season Toyo tires mounted on split four-spoke alloy wheels that mimic the car's square-but-round theme. The tires offer plenty of grip, and not too much road noise.

A good car to drive, but not a driver's car … and that's OK
I really like the Cube a lot. It's very comfortable, has a fun, fresh, interior, and lots of amenities. It's kind of like driving around a very cool yet functional room that rides well, and will get you from point A to point B in style and won't break the bank, either. It is, however, not what you'd call a “driver's car.” It's not terribly engaging to drive; the suspension doesn't make you want to push it through the corners; the seat doesn't hug you like a race car. But, the Cube wasn't intended to invoke a race car feeling. Instead, it does what it's supposed to do—create an inviting environment that will help transport you to where you need to go in style and comfort. Think “mobile device.”

2009 Nissan Cube - Subcompact CultureNissan has some stiff competition from the Kia Soul, and still has to go up to bat against the Scion xB and xD, among others. However, I believe the Cube has its place in the market. It rides better than the Soul, is smaller than the xB, and is more distinctive looking than the xD. Plus, the aftermarket is beginning to pick up, and should allow buyers to make the Cube more of a corner carver.

Thus far, no car has filled the void left by the first-generation Scion xB better than the Cube—including the second-generation xB. I think the Cube is the right size, the right price, and the right look for those looking to have what the original xB had. You either get it or you don't get it.

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Nissan Cube Life


spencer said...

Great review Andy!

True - it is not a driver's car, but as you pointed out it is not meant to be. I guess with some addons, you could make it more of a driver's car (lowered, strut bar, a little power upgrade), but I'm perfectly fine with it as is :)

Andy Lilienthal said...

Thanks, spencer. I look forward to seeing what the aftermarket will bring to the Cube. I know it's been popular in Japan with customizers. Maybe this year's SEMA show will feature some goodies (although I understand that Nissan USA will not be there this year).

CupHolderGuy said...

If your compact has armrests but no cup holder this is a simple and quick solution.

They're on eBay (with free shiping), but they're also on Amazon (I think a bit more expensive though). The wife mentioned she got ours on the website I linked to, and said she used promo code "$5off" but it was a while ago.

Jmartens said...

great review, thanks for sharing. I am a huge nissan fan, but can't stand the look of this car. I own an Element and love the xB so it's not just the shape that throws me off. Guess I don't know what it is!

I am curious to try out a CVT transmission sometime, seems like interesting technology. On another note, is the manual option really a 6 speed? I guess I don't see why you need that many gears in this car with only a 1.8L engine.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Yes, a six-speed is the optional transmission. The addition of another gear should allow for better ratios and increased fuel economy.

D2M said...

Good review! I like how the Cube looks, and I hope it catches on.

Still not sure about that shag carpet though... o_0

Andy Lilienthal said...

Yeah, the shag pad is for effect more than anything!

Anonymous said...

Great review Andy!

I'd be weary of Nissans CVT transmissions though. I've read about quite a few failures both in warranty and outside. When outside of the warranty things get VERY costly quickly.

ank said...

Great review, its right up there with edmunds!

Anonymous said...
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egor said...

Nissan has opened up the warranty on the CVT, now 10 years or 100,000 miles. And any problems prior to this new warranty they will go back and pick up the tab. I own a 2009 Cube (LS) and could not be more pleased. 29 mpg in the city. I have installed a (K&N) air system from Stillen and also a Stillen Cat-back muffler and it's preformance has been greatly improved. Thanks Nissan, look out XB's

egor said...

Nissan has now opened up it's warranty on the CVT, now 10 years or 100,000 miles, and any problems with the CVT prior will be covered.