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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Driving the Cube

Since 2002, a brilliant design and a quirky nature have made the Nissan Cube one of Japan's top-selling cars. With its superbly sculptured boxy styling and ingenious asymmetrical rear door (reportedly inspired by a 1950s refrigerator), the Cube became a design icon in a land of design mediocrity.

And yet Nissan never exported it. To the bosses in Tokyo, the Cube shaped up as a homegrown domestic model, too Japanese to fit into another culture. Fortunately gai-atsu, as they say in Japan, or "international pressure," changed all that.

And that's how we came to be driving the 2009 Nissan Cube on the Nissan proving ground in Yokohama, among the very first to drive the car that's coming to the U.S. in the spring of 2009. Americans apparently are finally quirky enough for the Nissan Cube.

Great Big Refrigerator Box
Like a refrigerator box, a Cube can be anything you want it to be — clubhouse, fortress, racing car. But a bigger box is always better. So the Cube has grown gradually larger since its first iteration in 1998, when it appeared as the latest in a line of style-obsessed Nissan niche vehicles like the Be-1, Figaro, Pao and S-Cargo. Now the third-generation Cube has been stretched over a larger platform based on the Nissan Versa.

Compared to the 2008 Nissan Cube we've tested in the U.S., the new car's wheelbase has been stretched 4 inches to 99.6 inches, while its overall length has grown 9.8 inches to 156.7 inches. Meanwhile, the wheels have been pushed out to the corners, the overall width has grown 1 inch and overall height has been increased 0.5 inch. The new Cube has a wheelbase that's still 2.8 inches shorter than a Versa and an overall length that's 12.4 inches shorter, yet the car looks bigger and more imposing on the road.

"That was one of our main aims," says chief engineer Yosuke Iwasa. "It had to still look like a Cube, but at the same time, it had to be more visually expressive." Iwasa spent several weeks in the U.S., studying the way the old Cube looked on American roads. "Parked at stoplights, surrounded by huge trucks, the Cube looked a little out of its league," he says. "From an aesthetic viewpoint, the new model had to be able to hold its own on American roads. And we think the end result just looks more solid."

What Iwasa wanted to say was that the outgoing Cube looked too cute and subservient next to big American pickup trucks, and that would never do.

Bulldog With Shades
The Cube's revised look features rounder edges, flared wheel arches and a slightly longer front overhang to accommodate the larger 1.8-liter inline-4 engine for international markets, and all this helps make the shape look more mature. It's still clearly a Cube, though.

With its snub nose, widely spaced headlights and upright greenhouse, the Nissan designers wryly say that the new Cube looks like a "bulldog in sunglasses." (Nissan's marketing campaign in Japan is all about this canine incognito thing.) The number of cut lines in the bodywork has been minimized to give it the look of pure product design, like an iPod.

The Nissan designers have also gone to some lengths to create a special Cube feature for each market, so the U.S. will get a model fitted with an asymmetrical rear door that opens from the right, with hinges on the left — the opposite of the Japan-spec model.

Triple Ripple
The five-passenger interior is a social space, meant for meeting with friends. The three-passenger lounge-style rear seat is mounted slightly higher than the front seats, and it slides fore and aft some 6 inches for added comfort.

The designers have given the interior the look of a Jacuzzi (of all things), all soft curves. In fact, an intriguing ripple effect has been integrated into the interior's C-pillar, door-mounted audio speakers and even the cupholders. The headliner of the non-sunroof model has been shaped to recall the ripples made by a stone being dropped into a still pool of water. The car with a sunroof has a shoji-like screen that lets in ambient light when it's drawn closed.

Interior quality has improved significantly, with better trim and plastics used throughout. The new sinuous, S-shape dash design makes the cockpit feel bigger than it is. The front seats now have lengthened seat cushions and seatbacks to accommodate bigger foreign bodies, and thicker cushions translate into extra lumbar support and more comfort.

The interior even comes in for some astronomical design nuances, with the speedometer surrounded by white light to represent the moon, and the tachometer engulfed in blue to express the Earth. A new, more powerful climate control system has also been fitted for the more trying weather situations in the Americas. And as you'd expect, the 2009 Nissan Cube is iPod-compatible, with a dedicated USB port under the dash plus dedicated software.

The interior comes in two shades of gray, Wall Gray and Graphite. There are colorful options, though, like the combination of a beige dash, dark-brown seat upholstery and a thick, gray shag-pile carpet. We remember driving something that had this wall-to-wall carpet thing back in the 1970s (alright, so it was a boogie van), and we nearly chucked our shoes and socks in the backseat so we could scrunch the carpet with our toes. Good thing the carpet has a built-in odor-eating function (we're not kidding).

Wind It Up and Let It Go
To keep costs down, Nissan has basically dropped the new Cube onto a slightly modified Versa, so it inherits the Versa's platform and engines. The U.S.-specification Cube will come with the Versa's 1.8-liter MR18DE inline-4 that makes 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. It's matched up with a new-generation continuously variable transmission (CVT) that warms up quicker in cold conditions, and it's expected to deliver about 30 mpg on the EPA's highway cycle. A six-speed manual transmission will be available as well.

We drove a JDM model of the new Cube with the 1.5-liter inline-4 of the previous Cube, which makes 107 hp at 6,000 rpm and 109 lb-ft of torque at 4,400. Thanks to the new Xtronic CVT and a tweaked ECU, the new Cube is quicker off the mark and more responsive to smaller throttle inputs, due mainly to the CVT's adaptive shift control that keeps the engine in its sweet spot between 2,000 and 4,500 rpm. While it won't win any sprint races, this 107-hp Cube will cruise to 60 mph in around 10 seconds, and has a top speed of just over 105 mph.

Most of the heavy lifting for the new package has focused on handling and ride quality, qualities sadly ignored by its predecessor. In addition to incorporating a stiffer chassis, the Cube employs independent struts on the front and a torsion beam setup on the rear, the rear spring rates have been increased and the antiroll bars are stiffer.

The upgraded dampers improve handling significantly, increasing straight-line stability, delivering a more compliant ride and reducing body roll in the corners. The Cube turns into corners on its P195/60R15 tires with more purpose than before, and has better feel and more feedback from the road. Though the Cube combines front disc brakes with rear drums, the brake pedal action is reassuringly firm, and the car dives less under braking as well. The bottom line is that the new Cube feels more planted to the pavement.

Simple but Not Cheap
As you'd expect with such a Scion-style vehicle, the 2009 Nissan Cube has lots of neat optional features, including hands-free Bluetooth telephone compatibility, XM Satellite Radio, a sonar rear parking sensor and a six-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system with a subwoofer.

But perhaps more surprising is the amount of standard equipment. Power door locks, power windows and intermittent-speed windshield wipers (plus a rear wiper) are part of the list of standard convenience items, while antilock brakes, brake assist, electronic brakeforce distribution, stability control with traction control, and tire-pressure monitors are also standard. There will be three models: the Cube 1.8, the Cube 1.8 S and the Cube 1.8 SL.

Nissan's mission with the new Cube has been to upgrade every aspect of the previous model in order to make it compatible with the demands of the U.S. market while maintaining the original car's iconic styling. It's done just that.