Sometimes a carmaker is not the first one on your street with a fresh idea, yet they execute it better than anybody else. For example, both Honda and Scion have graced the U.S. market with what amounts to a building block on wheels, Honda with the Element and Scion with the xB. The Scion is now on its second generation and in many ways isn’t quite as boxy as it was before, yet it still sports a shoeboxwithwheels persona. The Element is likewise a rolling brick of funk in its own right, with wild suicide rear doors and a unique sectional paint scheme. Actually, the chronology here can be confusing; Honda and Scion arrived first in America, but the Nissan cube got a head start in Japan and this is the third generation.
As great as these vehicles are, though, the Nissan cube (with a lowercase c so even the name is different) has taken the whole “box” concept to a new extreme. Nissan has polished and perfected this design exercise, creating a ride so stylish it draws attention like a supermodel in a hot tub. This is a pretty miraculous feat, especially since this wagon could easily be mistaken for a giant toaster that escaped from a Pixar movie.
The cube may be based on a mundane, fundamental shape, but once you examine it closely, you’ll see a treasure trove of details that makes other cars on the road look lame, especially those in this entry level price class. And though the overall form is based (like all boxes) on a series of right angles, there really aren’t any sharp edges and there is a flowing smoothness to the entire vehicle. Naturally, the wheels and tires resist the box theme, but surprisingly, the window styling is based more on an oval, rather than square, contour (all done with subtle body-sculpting and shading). Cooler still, the rear corner on the passenger side looks like a continuous wraparound window, even though it isn’t (more clever shading at work). This way these brilliant designers have installed asymmetry on the most symmetrical shape there is, for the driver’s rear corner looks completely “normal” and doesn’t have this continuous window treatment. Pretty much the whole car has touches like this, and is full of entertaining details inside and out.
The cube is so roomy and inviting on the inside (kind of like a dorm room that’s actually habitable) that Nissan calls it a “social space” instead of an interior. Truth be told, the car is very entertaining while parked and even the headliner blows your mind with a pebble-in-a-pond (or Zengarden) design. But this is, after all, a car, so Nissan could have screwed the pooch if the cube was a wheezer to drive. While it’s no street racer, the cube can definitely get out of its own way and the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) gets what power there is to the front wheels smoothly. A six-speed manual transmission is also available, but, incredibly, the CVT cube gets better mileage (we saw 28 MPG in a week of mixed-road thrashing). Excellent ABS brakes are standard, and handling is sound enough that you never feel you’re navigating a shrunken school bus when you toss it around corners. Seats are firm and comfy, and your rear-seat crew gets to slide and recline their perches if they so desire. Fold those rear seats and you can haul a good chunk of your life with you—58 cubic feet, in fact.
Such spaciousness comes as no surprise, given the shape. That said, this is no empty vessel. The cube may be a big box, but it’s filled with personality, style, and even some solid practicality. It also makes folks smile when they see it, which may be the best feature of all.