Finally, Americans can buy a car that looks like it was imported directly from the streets of Tokyo.
The 2009 Nissan Cube arriving in U.S. dealerships next month has the tall, narrow, boxy shape and quirky touches of Japanese vehicles that maximize interior space while sharing narrow roads in a congested Asian city.
The Cube's styling is so cartoonish it's clearly evident the look didn't originate with designers in America.
Best of all, the Cube's 109.1 cubic feet of interior room -- passenger space and cargo room combined -- is generous for an under-$15,000 car. Along with authentic Asian style, buyers get lots of practical room for passengers and cargo.
Plus, there are fun accessories. Shag material on your dashboard? You can have it in the Cube.
2009 Nissan Cube SL
- BASE PRICE: $13,990 for base model; $14,690 for S with manual transmission; $15,690 for S with continuously variable transmission; $16,790 for SL.
- AS TESTED: $19,110.
- TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, small wagon.
- ENGINE: 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder.
- MILEAGE: Estimated 30 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: NA.
- LENGTH: 156.7 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 99.6 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 2,762 pounds.
- BUILT AT: Japan.
- OPTIONS: Preferred package (includes key-free entry and ignition, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, rear parking sensors, XM satellite radio, steering wheel controls for radio) $1,600.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $720.
Fuel mileage is decent. While government fuel economy numbers haven't been released yet, Nissan officials expect a highway mileage rating of 30 miles per gallon, and the test Cube easily got 27.2 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $14,710 for a base, 122-horsepower Cube with four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission.
The lowest-priced model with a transmission that a driver doesn't have to shift manually is $16,410 for a Cube S with continuously variable transmission. CVTs work to optimize mileage by operating with an infinite gear range. The test car had Nissan's Xtronic CVT.
Base price for the Cube compares with the $16,420 starting retail price for a base 2009 Scion xB, which also has boxy styling but is arguably a bit less cartoonish in look. The xB is also larger than the Cube and with a 158-horsepower four cylinder has a bigger engine.
Meanwhile, Kia's new, boxy 2010 Soul, arriving from South Korea this spring with 122-horsepower four cylinder, will undercut both the base Cube and xB with a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $13,995 with five-speed manual.
People stared and even chased down the Cube during the test drive. Its look was that unique.
I stared at the Cube, too, each time I approached it. I had seen the Cube years ago in Japan, where it debuted in 1998, and I could scarcely believe it was in the States in its third-generation form with so much of its Asian character intact.
While Japanese cars have been sold in the United States for decades, few retain the authentic Asian flavor that they have in their home country.
To be sure, the new Cube has been tweaked, but subtly. It is larger than earlier versions, but not so much that it looks bulbous the way the current Scion xB does. It has a more powerful four cylinder than in Japan, and its bumpers and such meet required U.S. safety standards.
Inside the Cube, I couldn't help but feel like I was driving a small bus. My legs and those of my passengers hung downward, as they would in a bus, not in a car, and there was lots of room above me.
The mostly upright side windows are sizable, but they gather reflections from inside and outside the car at night. The reflections can be distracting at first.
And the seat cushions, front and rear, are flat, like those on a bus, though they have much better support.
Of course, the safety equipment -- not always found on buses -- is all standard and up-to-date. These include front-seat, anti-whiplash head restraints and side air bags, and curtain air bags for both rows of seats. Antilock brakes and electronic Brake Assist and brake force distribution also are standard.
Thankfully, the front-wheel drive Cube doesn't ride like a bus. The car's short wheelbase of less than 100 inches can create an up-and-down rhythm while it travels over expansion cracks on bridges. But the rest of the ride is comfortable and better than expected in a car at this price.
The turning circle of just 33.4 feet is amazing. Drivers can do U-turns almost anywhere.
But the Cube's electric power rack-and-pinion steering was a little too light for me. I'd prefer steering that requires a bit more effort by the driver, thus providing a more confident feel.
Engine power is adequate, though not sporty. The 1.8-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder is from Nissan's other small car, the Versa, and produces 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm in the Cube. There's no big "oomph" feel when the driver slams down the accelerator, but the Cube steadily gets up to speed, albeit with some four-cylinder engine noise.
A full 13.2 gallons of regular gasoline in the tank can provide more than 300 miles of travel, based on the mileage I got.
The Cube isn't particularly well insulated against sound so passengers hear nearby cars pretty clearly. There's wind noise, too.
But the interior still is a fun place to be. There's a spacious sense in both front and back seats. In front, the dashboard plastic flows in and out like a wave across the front, and radio and ventilation controls are segregated in two central locations.
I liked how Nissan helps drivers distinguish between the round tachometer and the round speedometer in the instrument cluster by illuminating each one with a different color -- white for the tach, blue for the speedometer. Needles in these gauges also do a full sweep around the dials every time the car is started. This is something usually seen in sporty cars.