By on February 1, 2012

I’m standing in the office of the New Orleans Guitar Company when I see it: a odd-looking, neck-through double-cut six-string, tossed in the corner and smothered beneath a completely opaque layer of sawdust. I pick it up, brush it off. It’s gorgeous; a combination of rare woods, mirror-matched and burnished to a gleaming finish. It’s easy to imagine this instrument occupying pride of place in some anesthesiologist’s home studio. Grasping the neck in one hand, I gesture with the other: How much?

Vincent Guidroz, who for all intents and purposes is the New Orleans Guitar Company, replies defensively: “Oh, that’s a primitive effort, really, compared to what I’m doing now… and it survived the flood here, I really couldn’t sell it, I want to keep it around, I’m sorry.” I can feel the frisson travel from the soles of my feet to my furrowed brow. In a world which has gone utterly mad for authenticity, this is weapons-grade guitar uranium.

I can just see it hanging on the wall next to my pair of Marv Lamb H-357s and my hand-made Korina Moderne, silently lending authority to my collecting savvy as I tell the story: “And, you know, when the water receded, and the looters were gone, this lone instrument lay on the floor of the workshop, perfect despise the immersion… I wouldn’t call it ‘immersion’ so much as ‘baptism’, really… You say you own a PRS Private Reserve? How, ah, financially impressive.”

No dice. Vincent won’t sell. As a consolation, he offers me directions to a “real New Orleans place to eat.” Authenticity on the half-shell. My companion, the infamous Vodka McBigbra, is already waiting outside in a car which offers a fair amount of authenticity itself: a 2011 Nissan Cube. After just three days, she loves the little box without reserve, but I’m personally afraid that, in this case, authenticity is something to be avoided. I will explain.

When Jonny Lieberman reviewed the first-gen Cube almost four years ago, he was doing so in the shadow of the Brobdingnagian betrayal known as the Scion xB, Generation Two. The horror with which “xB1” owners describe that particular vehicle rivals anything reported from the Nuremberg Trials, and to be honest the actual truth of the matter is far from reassuring. The unexpected success of the first xB somehow convinced Toyota that the second one needed to be a completely different type of vehicle. The current one is the Squarebird of Scions, with one difference: it doesn’t sell.

What a relief to see that this Cube is close enough in execution to its predecessor to make dubstep-addled hipsters wail and gnash their teeth as they beat out the tempo of despair in impotent drum circles outside Scion dealers. True, the delicacy of the original is lost. The first Cube appeared to be related in some way to the S-Cargo and Figaro, while the current one looks positively pugnacious from the front. The interior trades a little quirk for increased cupholder size and loses the delightful column shifter. That’s right: in 2012, BMWs shift from the steering wheel while little Japanese boxes force you to row the floor ashore.

A minor point: the Cube is built in Japan. To some people, that matters. It’s that authenticity thing again, the thing that stabbed the Z3 through the heart before Neimann-Marcus had sold the introductory edition and leads to endless Rennlist forum posts along the lines of “My new Boxster was built in Finland… HELP!” I’m not exempt from this. If anything, I’m worse than the average hipster. I like to personally know the guy who tailored my sportcoat, built my guitar, sewed my shoes. Distance is distrust for me. For others, it’s necessary. They want their Cube to be built in Japan by faceless Japanese people on whom they can project any characteristic which suits their inner needs. They wish they could escape their American tormentors and attend a Japanese high school, but they are too old and too American. Feels bad, man.

V. McB and I drove the Cube all over New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the course of a hastily-conceived vacation. On the long causeways, it was acceptably quiet, acceptably free from crosswind-induced insanity, acceptably rapid when the CVT was called into max ratio. I didn’t spot any assembly or material flaws in this very sub-$20,000 vehicle. After approximately 16,000 miles of use, the interior appeared to be more or less wear-free, in stark contrast to the Elantra I had a month and a half ago. Of course, the Elantra would have left it for dead had pace been required. Mr. Lieberman spoke glowingly of the first-generation Cube’s handling but presumably that was left at the import docks.

Driving around Treme, through the French Quarter, and down the still-reviving streets of Metarie, the Cube’s size was a tremendous asset. Parking was easy, and the very short nose made accurate placement on crowded streets entirely stress-free. On one absolutely tiny one-and-a-half-laner near the Tulane campus, we drove between two rows of parked cars with scarcely six inches on either side. An F-150 entering the street from the other direction wanted to bully us backwards but had to turn around itself when the front bumper proved to be too wide for the available road surface.

The instrument panel is deliberately minimal, as are the controls: cheapness as a virtue. If you’re wondering where the content gap is between this car and something like a Ford Focus, you’ll find part of the answer on the dashboard. Somehow, the utterly basic complement of controls seems far more cheerful in the green-and-white interiors commonly seen in Japanese Cubes. In basic black, it looks and feels both drab and uninspiring. I’m sure that American Nissan dealers coughed up a veritable mountain of recently-snorted cocaine when confronted with the possibility of Nissan with interior colors, but someone in Japan should have made ’em take it like good little girls.

Nor is there unalloyed joy in the Cube’s packaging. I’m barely any larger than the average North American male (at 6’2″ with a 32″ inseam) and I prefer to sit close to the steering wheel; nonetheless, my left shoulder was actually behind the B-pillar once my seat was adjusted. A passenger sentenced to sitting behind me in the Cube wouldn’t be much better off than someone trying the same task in a Scion iQ. Unlike the 120-inch Toyota minicar, however, the Cube had decent luggage space. Vodka’s monstrous dark-green Atlantic suitcase, which I have privately come to think of, and dread carrying, as “Leviathan”, fit without difficulty.

The Cube’s authenticity carries another, more unexpected penalty. The squared-off windshield worked very well on the original Scion xB, but applied to the Cube, it’s a step too far. The headliner seems extend three feet in front of one’s nose. Entering an intersection requires a positively Apatosaurian neck extend-and-twist to see the traffic signal overhead. My misreading such a light almost got me killed in Baton Rouge. For the first time in years, I was genuinely frightened behind the wheel. How ironic that it would occur in this tiny, placid little box.

The original Cube apparently needed the square roofline for another party trick: the driver and passenger could rotate and face the rear passengers for a little Tokyo-traffic chat. I can’t find anything on the Web to substantiate the idea that this feature actually appeared in production Cubes, so take it with a grain of salt. In the current US-market car, however, this vestigial feature only serves to annoy. I would like the Cube quite a bit more if it had a proper windshield, even if some of the JDM (yo) authenticity was irretrievably lost.

Kia doesn’t care one damned bit about JDM authenticity. For that reason, their Soul has a sloped front windshield. It’s also usefully larger than the Cube, being six precious inches longer. Somehow, that’s just right; the xB is six inches longer still and that’s a greater offense to common decency than Leviathan The Suitcase. Kia doesn’t make me put up with a CVT, a Pocky-box instrument panel, or too-small front doors. I can sit behind myself, should my cloning machine ever prove successful. Oh, speed that day! I can just imagine taking a posse of myselves to beat up former high-school enemies, perform rapid pitlane wheel changes, and engage in certain authentically JDM activities upon the blinking visages of various kneeling females.

Freed from the constraint of making the Soul authentic, the Koreans have made it useful; freed from the constraint of keeping it Japanese, they have made it irresistible to Americans. Some journalists have rated the Cube ahead of the Soul, but that’s the closet otaku speaking through their squeaky voices. They’re afraid to like the Soul, because it’s so obviously a crass, cut-rate imitation of the xB1 and the Cube, adulterated for our self-loathing American tastes. Their finely-honed palates, refined by relentless exposure to the very best lifestyle PR departments can buy them, demands that they seek out the authentic with your money the same way I chase it in guitars using my cash.

The hell with that. The Cube is a good car. You could buy one in clear conscience, particularly if you need to imagine yourself on the Ginza strip with Bertel Schmitt’s sister-in-law. No shame in that, but there’s a better choice. If you don’t care about Tokyo, authenticity, or smallness for its own sake, and you just want a decent, spacious, affordable small car, do what everybody else is doing: buy the Kia.

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48 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Searching for the Cube’s, er, soul in NOLA....”

  • avatar

    Not a fan of that hip segment but don’t looking at them.

    A single guy will need pictures of Bertel Schmitt’s sister-in-law.

  • avatar

    “I can just imagine taking a posse of myselves to beat up former high-school enemies, perform rapid pitlane wheel changes, and engage in certain authentically JDM activities upon the blinking visages of various kneeling females.”

    Bravo. In stitches.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    So a Soul is more than just a Cube, but a Cube has no Soul?

  • avatar

    “Authenticity” is kinda like the words “passion” and “heritage” are to cars. It’s meaningless cruff to make consumption more conspicuous.

    Considering the Japanese have a long history of building cars that are better-than-the-original copies, it’s nice to see the Koreans do the same thing.

  • avatar

    I bought my wife one of these during C4C, since I had an opportunity to turn an $800 car into $4500. A few things:

    – legroom is awesome in the back, as long as you slide the rear seat back. A lot of people don’t realize this is possible. It obviously shrinks the cargo capacity though. The fact that you mentioned that it had a lot of cargo space makes me think you may have had the rear seat fully forward. With it in its rearmost position, legroom is similar to that of the Lexus LS460. Despite the fact that I am only 5″4″, I have a 29″-30″ inseam, and sit Italian-style (short legs, long arms). I end up with my shoulder even with the b-pillar, so I am likely only 2″-3″ inches further forward. I have had 6+ footers rave about the rear seat room when I am driving. But you do have to choose between luggage space and rear legroom. 4 six footers can pack light and be comfy or bring all their crap and have their knees in their chins.
    – the interior is far more attractive in the light beige/gray two tone offered on the higher end models. You will almost never see this in the rental spec ones.
    – the Kia looks more like a real car. That can be good or bad depending on the person. My wife cares not one bit about Japanese culture, but thought the various whimsical touches (asymmetric rear window treatment, rippled headliner, jacuzzi-style interior styling, Earth-and-moon instrument cluster) made the car far more distinctive than the just-another-box Kia and xB2.
    – the CVT does what it can, but this car cries out for the turbo 1.6 from the Juke.
    – if you think it was easy to park in rental spec, try a loaded one. The wife’s was an early build so it only has the rear parking sensors, but the new ones can be had with a backup camera.
    – it handles competently, but not as well as an xB1. I have driven one of those with a 5-speed, and it is way more fun than it has any right to be. True to form, however, it was purchased by my (at the time) late-50s parents, as a leftover 2006 when they saw how ugly the xB2 was.

  • avatar

    This is an interesting looking vehicle, but alas, not quite up to my standards. I find the Soul much better looking to be honest.

    Even the current iteration of it looks good, just an evolution of the current body and it looks nice.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    Jack has bespoke shoes?

  • avatar
    Oren Weizman

    Anyone who didn’t google Brobdingnagian is full of shit

  • avatar

    So Karesh is a closet Otaku?

    • 0 avatar

      More likely one of his exes is. BTW, Fit is more of an otakumobile than Cube. Jazz is everywhere in Tokyo and the countryside, Cube is not. Cube is more for those who visit VIZ’s gothloli across from the mall in San Francisco Japantown, always browse and never buy anything. Or for those who want a car in gen1 xB dimensions.

  • avatar

    I hate to nit-pick, but the review that was linked is the second generation cube (Z11) the current model is the 3rd generation (Z12).

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Not a nitpick; it’s important and good to know. Between that and the sliding-seat thing, it’s obvious how much you can miss when you pay your own money and have no press materials on which to lean :)

  • avatar

    I like the IDEA of Cubes, because someone needs to build a car that doesn’t look like every other car. However, once I had the opportunity to actually drive one (OK, as a rental) the novelty wore off quickly. It seemed gimmicky for the purpose of being gimmicky. The sides are so vertical that there is a weird optical illusion from inside; it feels like the sides of the car are tilted a bit outward at the top (that IS an optical illusion right?). And when I went to gas it up, I couldn’t find the gas door release to save my life. It is (on an ’09 model at least) a tiny thing tucked so far under the dash that it is not visible from the driver’s seat. I gave up and Googled an owners manual.

  • avatar

    Pictures make it very clear that the Cube’s windshield slopes more than my jeep’s.

  • avatar

    I’m with smoking clutch. I confess my wife wanted it for the cute little right rear window. In wanted it in spite of that. I have driven Nissan trucks for years and am a Nissan fan. We bought this 2011 about a year and a half ago. We now have 37k of trouble free driving.

    I think you didn’t slide the seat or you have underestimated your girth. It’s ok, the weight can creep up there if you aren’t watching. This thing has room for four rotund individuals just not a lot of luggage at the same time. Or two can go across country with the seats down.

    The kia was reputed to have less than a 100k engine when I was studying before this purchase. I don’t know if that is true or not. Didn’t seem likely but the Nissan should go 200k even with a negligent driver such as I.

    We got the six speed. I would feel like I was back in the fifties if I had a column mounted shift. Somehow I get the feeling that you had some sort of erection when you were evaluating it. However, that is what makes horse races. You are not so impressed. I love it. And best of all, you just gave me space to say so.

    Between this and the elderly truck for carrying loads, I don’t see much buying in the future for 4-5 years.


    • 0 avatar

      @wstarvingteacher: ” Somehow I get the feeling that you had some sort of erection when you were evaluating it.”

      Thanks for the best laugh I’ve had in weeks!

  • avatar

    I suspect what really eats the Cube’s lunch is not the Soul but its platform mate Versa hatch in the same showroom.

    The Versa also comes in a much better brown.

  • avatar

    Hey Jack! Did you see Travis Pastrana driving a Ferrari in the Rolex 24 this past weekend? I’m sure you knew about it. Didn’t see you mention it. That must have burned your ass!!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      With the exception of F1, I don’t bother to watch races in which I’m not participating. A decade ago, when I had more free time and no child, I used to trek up to Mid-Ohio to watch ALMS and Grand-Am a few times a year.

      Looks like Travis finished third from last among cars which didn’t have a mechanical, behind my neighbor and fellow SCCA OVR member, John Fergus, who if memory serves me is about 65 years old.

  • avatar

    The Nissan Cube and the Kia Soul are direct competitors in both size and price. Souls start at 14K, Cubes at 15K, xB’s start at 16K but realistically they’re going for around 18-19K. I feel bad because I absolutely love my xB. I grew up driving Panther platform vehicles and when I drove the xB I found how wonderful it was to have a car that wasn’t large enough to fly F-18s off of. If anything I find the reason souls are flying off the shelf is they’re cheap. They’re one of the cheapest cars in America and offer the high seating and room that hatchbacks in the US should offer.

    As for me, I couldn’t fit comfortably behind the wheel of the cube because of my leg length. The whole car feels too small for me as does the soul. But to each their own.

  • avatar

    I certainly hope Kia doesn’t care about JDM authenticity. It’d be kinda awkward if they did.

  • avatar

    I’m glad the Cube has survived mostly intact, as I really like this little oddball, but that’s the kinds of cars that attract me, whether I would buy one or not. Now I have to check one out.

    Note to IPhone and smart phone camera users: We do not see in vertical dimensions, please shoot photos horizontally as god intended.

    Note to “hipsters”: Hipsters = losers. Period. That means you are a young person living in the basement with no hope of ever living a normal life – ever. Right next door to the fat, 35-40-year-old gamer neighbor stuck in the same predicament! Space cadets, all.

  • avatar

    I was pleased to see Jack finally mentioned Treme….because the first scene of finding the post-Katrina guitar in a NO music shop sounded like an actual *episode of* Treme.

  • avatar

    I like that Nissan brought the Cube to the US. Perceptions of what a car “should be” need to be shaken up a bit. BTW, enjoy your stay in the Crescent City. The Gulf Cost is a nice place to be in the winter.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Jack, great article, but in this sentence:

    “They’re afraid to like the Soul, because it’s so obviously a crass, cut-rate imitation of the xB1 and the Soul, adulterated for our self-loathing American tastes.”

    I’m guessing what you really meant to write was “cut-rate imitation of the xB1 and the Cube” ?

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Another great piece, which I read from beginning to end despite having never been inside (or considered owning) any of the cars mentioned (except the Z3, which I do own).

    As for the “authenticity” part, I could get the authenticity fetish for made-in-Japan vehicles, if only because Japanese-built product in the late 80s and 90s earned a reputation for fastidious assembly and materials quality unequaled in the world.

    Since at least the end of the 1960s, a fetish for made-in-Germany cars completely eludes me. The old VW Beetles were assembled painstakingly, used quality materials (for the time), and I can understand respecting German engineering (although my faith even in that is fading, as I recently completed replacing all of the plastic(!) cooling system components in my Z3’s M54 engine before the failed catastrophically.

    I actually like the fact that it was built in South Carolina, but I’m a native.. .

  • avatar

    “Nor is there unalloyed joy in the Cube’s packaging…”

    Are you sure about this? Because I participated in a Cube demo where myself and three other people, all of us more than 6’6″, sat in a Cube with significantly more room than, oh, a Lincoln Town Car.

  • avatar

    “my left shoulder was actually behind the B-pillar once my seat was adjusted”

    At 6′ (with a 32″ inseam) my ’02 Dakota Quad Cab suffers from this problem as well. If I’m ever T-boned or sideswiped in the Dak the height-adjustable seat belt shoulder mounting point is going to crack my skull in half. It aligns perfectly with my temple! Squeezing 2 doors in a space where only 1.5 really fit has certain drawbacks.

  • avatar

    I would say that he is not sure of this unless there were two other people that he forgot to mention. Now you have aroused my curiosity. Please share what sort of demonstration you participated in.

  • avatar

    Glad to see you review the Cube, Jack.

    I’m with the others, though. You obviously didn’t have the back seat pushed all the way back. Part of the reason the Cube appealed to me was its ability to focus on cavernous (for a subcompact) passenger volume or tons of cargo space in such a small package. Admittedly, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, in this instance. But no other car of this size makes this possible in such an easy-to-use (not to mention easy-to-park anywhere) package.

    My wife daily drives a Cube that looks just like the one pictured. Ours is a 2010 Cube S CVT with the lighter gray interior accents, which really do help. We also go cruise control standard on our leather-wrapped wheel, all for less than $16,000. We’re very happy with it. Cheap to own, cheap to maintain even if you do Nissan dealer maintenance (by the book, not by the dealership’s “suggested” service intervals). My wife remarked after a year of ownership last month that this was the first of her many cars that she could honestly say she loved, and that if anything ever happened to it, God forbid, she’d go buy another one to replace it.

    I want a base white Cube with the six-speed manual transmission to turn into a Stormtrooper. I think it would make a great daily driver. Plus, it would allow me to park my beloved Ranger and preserve it for hauling duties, since Ford stupidly killed my chances of ever getting another new Ranger in North America.

  • avatar

    I don’t have enough fedoras or flattened cardboard boxes to break dance on to truly enjoy one of these cars.

  • avatar

    My wife and I both have Nissan Cubes. We bought them within a week of each other. It’s hard to beat all the features including NAV, XM, rear camera, good MPH, great safety features, for less than $20k.

    Plus, I’m a big dude: 6′ and 375 pounds. I can fit in the Cube with no problem, and it’s comfortable. As the article mentioned, the Cube is excellent in urban settings, Easy to park; easy to weave through traffic and tight situations.

    We recently drove my Cube across country. While it was no speed demon, we did drive 75 the entire way with no issues. Though anything over 80MPH and the little engine gulps gas like my old ’69 Plymouth RoadRunner. Wind noise was probably the biggest complaint.

    Is it as good as our previous vehicle, the Pathfinder? No. But that Pathfinder was also $37k. We got two Cubes for about the same price as one big, loaded SUV. To each their own.

  • avatar

    It’s not a bad little car, but the styling quirks seem a little forced (the first-gen Cube was more reserved.) I think I’m still stickin’ with the iQ, which goes on sale March 1 in my neck-of-the-woods, according to a most helpful Scion booth professional.

  • avatar

    Sitting inside a Nissan Cube, the way everything is proportioned.. the vast amounts of useless empty space (as opposed to useful empty space, like right next to your elbow for example), the thick A-pillar planted prominently in my forward field of view, the low and flat floors under high captain’s chairs.. I was left feeling less like I was test-driving a car and more like I was sitting in a couple of refrigerator delivery boxes crazy-glued together and mounted on roller-skates. It was a terrifying driving experience for me, and all I did was do a circuit of the parking-lot.

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