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Nissan Cube: The right angles

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Behold the cube, that most forthright and earnest of the Platonic solids, the noble hexahedron, the proverbial box that it came in, whatever "it" happens to be. The cube is one of nature's transcendental shapes: Salt crystals are cubic, as are molecules of some of your better elements, such as aluminum, silver and gold. From ice to dice, from Picasso to Braque, cubism is very cool.

A cube has another property that geometers know well: It contains the largest volume of any cuboid shape for a given surface area, or linear size. Which is to say, it's the most space-efficient of all boxes.

And that's where the Nissan Cube comes in. One of the pioneers of the tall-wagon/multipurpose-vehicle idiom in the Japanese market, the Cube is, relatively speaking, vast on the inside. Consider that this truck-nugget -- at 146.9 inches long, a foot shorter than a Mazda MX-5 -- has more cargo space than a Mercedes-Benz S-class. It seats five in relative comfort over a wheelbase of just 95.66 inches and has enough head and shoulder room to accommodate a squad of Buckingham Palace guards, bearskin hats and all. This is the five-pound bucket for whatever 10 pounds you happen to have.

After years of dithering, Nissan has finally decided to bring the Cube to the U.S. market. Informed speculation has the first cars arriving in early 2009, after Nissan launches the redesigned Cube in the home market.

The car you see here is a right-hand drive, Japan-market car, brought over by Nissan as part of a multimedia project with Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute film school and New York's Pratt Institute. The redesigned car will be different in some of the surface detailing -- and it will almost certainly have the Nissan Versa's 1.8-liter engine instead of the 1.4-liter fly swatter under the hood now -- but it will still be smaller than just about any other wagon on the market, still keenly minimalistic and still a self-consciously arch and arty bit of clumsy-cool industrial design. Pratt Institute, indeed.

Basically, then, this is last year's model with an engine you'll never see. So why am I driving it? Because I wanted you, Mr. and Ms. America -- if you'll put down the xylophone of barbecued ribs for a moment -- to look at the car of your future: smaller, lighter (2,530 pounds), slower, less powerful. Give it a decade. This is the car you get when you put the American market's appetite for mega-space, utility and people-moving together with a 35-mile-per-gallon CAFE standard and $5- and $6-per-gallon gasoline. You get a box on wheels.

Here is one of the great unspoken truths about the drive for a more fuel-efficient vehicle fleet. It will be utterly impossible to achieve energy security or to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions unless we are able to lower the average vehicle weight. It doesn't matter if you're advocating grid-charged electrics, plug-in hybrids, ethanol, or fuel cells powered by a glowing hair from Apollo's beard. None of these technologies works as well as making vehicles smaller and lighter.

A good example -- though I hate to harp on it -- is the ballyhooed Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, the 2008 Green Car of the Year [sic]. It has one of the most advanced and powerful hybrid powertrains extant, and it still gets only 20 mpg. Why? Because it weighs like the flippin' Lusitania.

So deal with it. American cars are going to get smaller, and they ought to. The Nissan Cube is a rough but accurate preview. And guess what? It isn't so bad. In fact, I predict great things for next year's Cube, and here's why:

Styling: The Cube is to cars what Michael Cera ("Juno") is to actors: an irresistibly cute dork. By now the look is kind of old-hat in Japan, but here in America the boxy style is still fresh and charming. One of the knocks against the redesigned 2008 Scion xB was that the company softened and conventionalized the style, pulled back from the square-thumb-in-the-eye look. The Cube is a square connoisseur's dream.

And by the way, women absolutely love this car. I'm just saying.

Speaking of the xB: When I favorably reviewed the xB, the box-lovers howled. The car's weight went up 600 pounds, the horsepower went up 55, and fuel economy dropped like a stone.

How is that progress? they asked. The Nissan Cube promises to be everything these kids could want, and less. The current car is powered by a 90-hp inline four driving the front wheels and gets about 40 miles to the gallon on the highway. But, of course, there's a trade-off.

Performance: The Cube is, no doubt, a rather leisurely way to traverse Euclidean space. Zero-to-60 mph takes about 14 seconds and top speed on the highway is about 85 mph, when the Cube's quarry-block styling generates truly epic aerodynamic drag.

But the funny thing is, I notice, the car doesn't feel all that slow. In fact, in city traffic, the Cube is perfectly adequate to keep the pace and merge successfully. Weighing just over 1 1/4 tons, the car has less mass to stir and so it is surprisingly responsive off the mark. My time in the Cube reminds me that so much of the American car market -- from price to performance to fuel economy -- is over-amplified silliness, a wretched gas-wasting orgy sold to us in various shades of envy. In other words, 90 hp is plenty.

All-wheel drive: American performance anxiety is nowhere better manifested than in our insistence on heavy, fuel-consuming four-wheel-drive systems, which are useless approximately 98% of the time. The Cube features a very clever gadget called e-4WD: A small electric motor situated in the back can be engaged to drive the rear wheels, helping to pull the car out of snow or a slick rut. It doesn't work at higher speeds but then you don't need it then, do you?

Livability: Few cars fold into a lifestyle as easily as the Cube. It's effortless to drive, easy to park, as nimble as a parkour artist in the city. I watched some clown in a Ford F-250 execute an eight-point turn in a Trader Joe's parking lot the other night and wondered why he was making himself so miserable.

If the Cube is any indication of what the rolling world is like a decade from now, take heart. Cars will be smaller but still plenty big, slower but still plenty fast. The wisdom of the Cube is the wisdom of all cubes: Efficiency is a beautiful thing.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2008 Nissan Cube Base price: $13,821 (4WD)Powertrain: 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder with variable-valve timing; four-speed automatic transmission (column-shift); front-wheel drive with electric rear-drive assistHorsepower: 90 hpTorque: 109 pound-feetCurb weight: 2,530 pounds0-60 mph: 14 secondsWheelbase: 95.66 inchesOverall length: 146.9 inchesEPA fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city, 40 mpg highway (est.)Final thoughts: The box that rocks

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