After spending a few days in Nissan's Cube, I was reminded of Los Angeles' historic Mar Vista Housing tract. Built in the 1940s by designer Gregory Ain, the development deployed basic shapes (squares and rectangles) to give the suburban spread a high degree of architectural sophistication. Of course, people considered these "flat roof" houses a commie plot; builders only erected 52 of the planned 100 homes. The Nissan Cube sells for $11k in Japan. In the same way as Mar Vista, the Cube offers a whole lot of chic for a little bit of green.
At first glance, all you see is a box. But the Cube is a subversive piece of sheetmetalistry. First of all, it's brilliantly asymmetrical. The rear hatch is in fact rounded glass on one corner, whereas the other holds the hinges. Second, the Cube rolls on four round wheels (surprise!). Yes, well, the circle motif playfully contrasts against the cubism. The grill, wheels, headlights and taillights are all actually circles on squares.
The design brings to mind the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry orders a "Vanilla Bullshit" at Starbucks and starts exclaiming, "Coffee and milk! Milk and coffee! What a great idea!" Sometimes you don't need a grand, flame-surfacing language that speaks (only) to art school deans. More to the point, an entire coffee shop full of hot moms emptied out into a parking lot to "ooh!" and "ahhh!" over the khaki-colored Cube. Let's see you pull that trick in a Bangled Bimmer.
This simple-yet-clever styling motif continues inside. That's right, the dials, seat pattern and even plastic molding on the glovebox are all circles on squares. Other than that, there isn't much to write home about. On a postcard.
Calling the Cube "Spartan" is like calling water wet. Yet there is much to like about the minimalist treatment. For instance, a column shifter leaves room for a bench seat. There's a hunk of plastic molding in back that stores an umbrella. And if playing drug runner is your thing, the Cube has more smuggling compartments than the Millennium Falcon. Handy cubbyholes abound, including two glove boxes. Most importantly, you can haul mucho stuff, especially with the back seats down and scooched forward.
A couple of points before I share my driving experiences…
Nissan was kind enough to lend me a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car. That means the steering wheel's on the wrong (right!) side. The Japanese juice box's 1.4-liter engine has as much chance of making it to the States as Ron Paul has of making it to the White House… with Mike Gravel as his running mate. An all new, US-bound Cube debuts at this year's Los Angeles Auto show. Figure on the Versa's 1.8-liter four-pot scrunched under the hood.
The JDM car packs about 90 horses and not a lot of torque (if you can translate Japanese, have it). You'd expect that confronting American traffic in a low-po Cube would be a terrifying experience for all concerned. ("Honey, did we just squish something?") Here's the thing: it's absolutely not. Even with the extra weight of the Cube's all wheel-drive components (more on that in a bit), the Nissan tips the scales at just 2400 pounds.
I'm guesstimating a zero to 60 time of, oh, I don't know, 15 seconds. The Cube's statistical sloth makes getting onto the freeway a theoretically dangerous exercise. But the funny thing about reality is that it's always disproving the most logical theories. The Cube's no rocket, but around town it felt fine. Quick, even. While 90 mph is all she wrote, passing people is possible. Instead of lightly drubbing the Cube's throttle, you just bury it.
Even better, once at speed, the Cube is wonderfully composed. I was shocked by its sporting agility; we're talking Honda Fit-like handling. Meanwhile, the high seating position makes you feel like one of the big boys.
As mentioned, our Cube featured AWD. More precisely, e-4WD, and it's not what you think. The engine never powers the rear wheels. Instead, Nissan fitted a small electric motor to one of the half-shafts. Stuck in some sloppy footing? Flip a switch and the alternator sends power back to the rear wheels; talk about traction on demand.
The final part of my endorsement equation is this: have you been to the pumps lately? Nissan made me promise to go easy on the Cube, as only five exist in the country, they don't have any spare parts and no one knows how to fix them. Regardless, the Cube returned an honest-to-goodness 40 mpg.
[All photos by author; Nissan provided the vehicle reviewed, gas and insurance.]