With its new Cube model, Nissan seems intent on outdoing the Honda Element and Scion xB for polarizing style. Some people are going to hate the 2009 Nissan Cube's looks, and some people are going to love it. But nobody can deny the practicality of the massive amount of space inside and the large load area made possible by the side-hinging rear hatch.
Although it's not big on horsepower, it is zippy enough for running around town, and it's economical. Our biggest complaints deal with cabin tech--there isn't any in the S trim model we tested, nor in the base model. You have to get the top-of-the-line SL trim version to get anything tech-related from the factory.
On the road
We discovered the tech-less nature of the 2009 Nissan Cube S when we first got in, and saw that it lacked the expected iPod port. So we slipped an MP3 CD into the stereo and were extremely disappointed to find that it wouldn't play. We were beginning to doubt Nissan's advertising phrase, Mobile Device.
The only convenient place to put personal electronics is in the floor-mounted cupholders.
Plan C involved hooking up an MP3 player to the stereo's faceplate-mounted auxiliary audio input, but our patch cable was short, and the Cube has no convenient pockets in the dashboard for personal electronics. We eventually secured a 3-foot patch cable so the MP3 player could sit in the floor-mounted cup-holder.
It took some work getting to a comfortable seating position, largely because of the strange proportions of the car. Fortunately, the driver's seat has height adjustment, which helped the cause. But don't expect any power seat controls at this price level.
Finally, out on the road, the Cube proved very responsive to the gas pedal. For city streets, it works great, as the 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine gives it lots of low-end push to make quick lane changes. The Cube also gets plenty of attention from passers-by. We even had someone leaning out of a convertible Mustang to get a photo.
The side-hinged rear door offers excellent access to the car's interior.
Taking it around corners with a little speed, the Cube feels squirrely, like its tires are scrambling around trying to keep it from tipping over. Nissan throws its roster of road-holding electronics in the Cube, such as a stability program and traction control, so it seems like a pretty safe car. We didn't feel like it was in any real danger of going wheels-up.
Hammering the throttle for a freeway entrance, the initial thrust was good, but power seemed to top out around 35 mph. The trip up to 60 mph was leisurely, but once up at freeway speeds, the Cube maintained 65 to 75 mph easily, with enough push to handle hills.
In the cabin
With the S trim, the 2009 Nissan Cube isn't really a tech car. The best thing we can say for it is the double-DIN stereo should come out easily. Consider replacing it with an all-in-one navigation and stereo unit such as the Eclipse AVN6620.
This stereo is a waste of space, but at least it looks easily replaceable.
The audio system will also need replacement, as the Cube's stock door woofers and A-pillar tweeters are really inadequate. Highs sound tinny, while mids and bass come out muffled. As with the stereo, the Cube needs a good amp and better speakers. A subwoofer would be a nice addition.
If you move up to the SL trim, there is plenty of standard and optional cabin tech; for instance, an iPod port, MP3 CD capability, and automatic headlights all come standard. And in one option package you also get Bluetooth cell phone integration, a smart key, better speakers and a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer, and satellite radio. Considering the car's target demographic, we think some of these options should be offered on the two lower trims.
A number of dealer accessories will also be available for the Cube, with the goofiest being a round patch of shag carpet mounted on the center of the dashboard. Dealers will also offer a Garmin GPS navigation device for the Cube.
Under the hood
We already mentioned the Nissan Cube's surprisingly good low-end push. The thrust comes from an engine tuned for torque more than horsepower. The little, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine cranks out 127 pound-feet of torque and 122 horsepower. It uses variable-valve timing to optimize efficiency. That engine is standard at all trim levels.
We like the funky look of the instrument panel, and appreciate that Nissan throws in a full trip computer.
EPA mileage numbers have not been published as of this review, but the car is expected to achieve better than 30 mpg on the highway. In our testing, we got it above 29 mpg on the freeway at speeds over 70 mph.
Our S trim Cube had a continuously variable transmission (CVT), eliminating gear change bumps and improving mileage. We've been impressed with Nissan's CVT in other models, and it works well in the Cube, too, although it doesn't have as much power to play with as in those other cars.
A six-speed manual is also available in the S model, and is the only transmission at the base trim. At the SL trim, the CVT is the only transmission available.
Along with traction control and Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control, a stability program, the Nissan Cube S also comes standard with antilock brakes, brake-force distribution, and tire pressure monitoring. The Cube also contains a complete set of airbags, with front and side curtain providing all-around protection.
The 2009 Nissan Cube S trim we tested is priced at $15,690. We would have preferred the SL trim, which actually offers some cabin tech, and is priced at $16,790. We would also add the $1,600 Preferred package, which brings in Bluetooth and a subwoofer, among other options.
Because we rate cars at the trim level of our review unit, we have to give the 2009 Nissan Cube S a low score for cabin tech. But it does much better for performance. We like its around-town drivability. It also does well for design, as its exterior makes for a distinctive look and it offers lots of practical space.