Driving enthusiasts, given the choice between the Soul and the cube, will opt for…a Honda Fit. So this comparison between Kia’s and Nissan’s boxes-on-wheels assumes different priorities. Which provides the most relaxing refuge from the seriousness of work when commuting to and fro? Short answer: the cube.
Like the Soul, the cube is a riff on the basic box popularized in the U.S. by the original Scion xB. Unlike the Soul, the Nissan’s major lines are either parallel or perpendicular to the pavement. In other words, it’s a box.
And yet, unlike the classic xB, it’s not simply a box. There’s some subtle surfacing in the bodysides. The window openings have rounded corners. Further outside the box: the cube is asymmetrical. There’s a small window in the right side C-pillar, and the pillars around this window are blacked out, but no corresponding window on the left side, where the pillar is body color. This asymmetry is even functional. From the driver’s seat you couldn’t see out such a window on the left side anyway. And with no window, there can be a storage bin inside the left C-pillar.
Yes, many people hate the cube’s exterior. Or find a car that looks like a Toontown escapee both silly and pointless. But this silliness is the point. Some people want a car that doesn’t take itself seriously, and that displays a clear disregard for convention. If you’re going to diverge from mainstream auto design, why stop short of challenging people? The Soul’s design isn’t challenging. The cube’s is.
The Soul’s styling is optimized for 18-inch wheels. The cube’s exterior is far less wheel-centric, so its 16s are plenty large. This one’s all about the box. The tested cube was a krom model, meaning a unique grille with Ford-like faux chrome bars, side skirts, and unique wheels. I’d pass on these bits, as they don’t add much to the appearance of the car, and the side skirts make little sense given the overall mission.
With some notable exceptions, Nissan wasn’t as adventurous with the interior design. The most notable exception: the headliner far above your head is molded to form a series of concentric waves around the dome light. Think Japanese rock garden. A sunroof would interrupt the pattern, which might be why none is offered. The instrument panel similarly includes some very zen circles and curves, and forms a wave when viewed from above. This wave motif continues with the floormats. Very calming.
But why is the cube interior only available in light gray or (in the car I drove) off-black? The VW Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and (to a lesser extent) Kia Soul all offer vibrant color inside the car. Nissan offers colorful vent surrounds as dealer-installed accessories, but these hardly compensate for the overwhelming colorlessness of the rest of the interior.
The instruments include a weak attempt at whimsy, with blue and white graphics that are too obviously painted on. But why did Nissan’s inexplicable infatuation with orange LED displays have to infect the cube? Not only does the orange trip computer nestled between the tach and speedometer clash with the blue and white graphics, but orange simply isn’t a soothing color. Consult a zen master for better alternatives. Perhaps a cool blue?
The driver can select among 20 colors for the ambient lighting in the footwells and cupholders. This feature would be more compelling if you could change the color of all of the instrument panel readouts to something other than orange. As it is, the carpet doesn’t match the drapes unless you opt for even more orange. One electronic feature the cube could do without: the $100 alarm system that goes off if you attempt to open a locked door. Or breathe on the car. It’s not entertaining.
The problem with striving to be whimsical is that some jokes are bound to fall flat. Case in point: the cube’s optional (and removable) “dash topper.” What’s a dash topper, you ask? Well, it’s a small circle of shag carpet velcroed to the top center of the instrument panel. No doubt the intent was to make being inside the cube more like being inside one’s family room, to give you a little piece of home the moment you leave work. The original concept might have called for covering the entire top of instrument panel with shag carpet, 1970s custom van style. The airbag engineers would have nixed any such concept. Cut a little here, and little there, and you get the small circle in the center. Even in the context of the cube, the car toupee (as I came to call it) seems pointless.
Once past color and the car toupee, the interior gets better. When packaging the cube, Nissan made much different choices than Kia. The cube’s windshield is much more upright than the Soul’s and its instrument panel was designed to take up as little visual space as possible. The downside: unless you have long arms, you’ll have to lean forward to operate the radio. Or use the redundant controls on the steering wheel. Also, the upright windshield yields huge front side windows. Generally a good thing, but the non-extending sun visors cover only the forward half of said windows. So, expect bright sunlight in your eyes if it’s westward ho in the late afternoon.
The upside: from the driver’s seat the cube’s interior feels much more expansive than the Soul’s. No cockpit effect whatsoever. You feel like you’re navigating a small room. The broad seats, similar to those in the Quest minivan, are softer than most these days. Lateral support? What would be the point? Much more missed in their absence: heated seats. Wait for the automatic climate control to do its job, power up the Rockford Fosgate audio, then kick back and enjoy the comfort of home on the way home.
Which brings up the name. The point of such a silly car is to forget about life’s necessities, most notably work. Say “cube,” and the first thing most people will think of is the place they spend their time at work. Few want to be in a cube once they leave work. The name originated in Japan. Does “cube” lack this usage over there?
The cube’s roominess extends to the sliding and reclining back seat, which is mounted high enough off the floor to provide adults with thigh support. My kids loved how well they could see out. Credit the low, unraked beltline.
There’s not much space between the rear seat and the left-hinged tailgate. Enough for groceries, but luggage for four probably isn’t happening. As in the Soul, the front passenger seat does not fold. A pitty, as this feature would be especially useful for long objects given the non-invasive IP and upright windshield. Unlike in the Soul, there’s no hidden storage compartment beneath the cargo floor. While this does provide a deep well, it also means that when the rear seat is folded the cargo floor isn’t remotely flat. Nor can the rear seat be removed or flipped far forward. No magic here.
On the spec sheets, the Soul has a power advantage. Out in the real world, the cube’s 1.8-liter four dramatically outperforms the Soul’s 2.0 even though both vehicles weigh about 2,800 pounds. The cube’s secret weapon: a CVT. This CVT isn’t without its disadvantages—one’s ears often convey the impression that the clutch is slipping. The relationship between engine noise and vehicle speed is decidedly non-linear. And said engine noise is overly buzzy—“buzz box” entered my mind, and stuck there until the phrase (almost) became endearing. But, to give credit where credit is due, the CVT enables the 1.8 to boost the cube to 40 MPH much more effortlessly than it has a right to. There’s no sluggishness off the line or lugging at higher speeds. A responsive six-speed automatic might yield similar performance with a more natural feel—but no competitor offers such a transmission. The Soul’s quick-to-upshift, slow-to-downshift four-speed automatic is decidedly inferior.
Also, recall that you’re not driving a conventional car. In the cube, it seems oddly appropriate to simply prod the pedal and then let the powertrain hoist you up to speed. Too bad you can’t just push a button, as in an elevator. MPG in typical suburban driving came to 25.8.
Handling…how do you want a family room on wheels to handle? Body motions are fairly well controlled, and the door handles remain well off the pavement in hard turns. Agile…not really. And yet more fluid and natural feeling than the Soul, despite vague, overboosted steering that feels directionless on center. Intent on running the Tail of the Dragon? You’re shopping in the wrong class of vehicle.
Given the cube’s mission, ride quality is more important than handling. While the cube’s ride quality is far from luxury class, and can feel a little busy at times, it is smoother and much more forgiving of road imperfections than the Soul’s. You have a much better shot at relaxing during that commute to the cube in Nissan’s cube.
At the cube’s price (still just over twenty grand when loaded up with the krom bits) you expect some shortcomings. And the cube has them. Nissan needs to change the IP lighting, kill the (engine) buzz, tighten up the on-center steering, extend the sun visors, and heat the seats. But even with these shortcomings the cube outpoints the competition in combining an offbeat exterior with an expansive interior and relaxing driving experience. Those that “get it” should get it. The rest of us…well there are plenty of more conventional cars for us.
[Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of pricing and reliability data]