Trackday Diaries: Searching for the Cube's, Er, Soul in NOLA.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Philadlj Philadlj on Feb 02, 2012

    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.

  • Les Les on Feb 04, 2012

    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.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.