Nissan’s Cube is coolness in a box

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The science of aerodynamics tells us that air is a fluid with its own viscosity and inertia. When an object such as an automobile moves through it, the object is enveloped in a thin layer known as a laminar flow. Where the laminar airflow shears away from the surface it quickly degrades into a chaos of disordered air, or turbulence, which results in energy-sapping drag. The longer and smoother a surface -- the more it approximates a perfect teardrop shape -- the more aerodynamically efficient an object will be.

Designing a car involves hundreds of hours of wind-tunnel analysis as engineers, making sometimes extraordinarily fine sub-millimeter adjustments, chase down excess drag, wind noise and lift. The process is tedious but there is a certain beauty to it, as the car’s exterior is gradually brought into harmony with the reifying, God-given properties of nature.

And then there’s the air-hating box of ugly, the 2009 Nissan Cube.

The Cube is to aerodynamics what a collapsing bridge is to Olympic diving, what slipping on an icy sidewalk is to “Swan Lake,” what poached dirt on toast is to a gourmet breakfast. It’s a travesty, a mockery, a baleful parody of auto aerodynamics. Nissan Motor Co. says the design was inspired by a “bulldog in sunglasses.” My question: Which end is wearing the sunglasses?


Of course, it’s not supposed to be beautiful, if by “beautiful” you mean sleek, lean, porpoise-like. That’s a very old school, geezerly car aesthetic that simply doesn’t resonate with a lot of young people. For echo boomers and millennials born from 1980 to 1990, beautiful is counterintuitively clumsy, affectedly unsleek, modular and angular, as in Wii consoles, iPhones and the large, squarish heads of the Jonas Brothers. It’s no accident that Nissan has tagged the Cube its “mobile device.”

To bring you up to speed a bit: The Cube is a huge hit for Nissan in Japan, and now -- given a projected upswing in the small crossover segment in the U.S. -- the company has homologated it for the North American market. Built on Nissan’s B-platform chassis (used in the Versa and Sentra), the Cube is powered by a 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower four cylinder; offers a choice of automatic or six-speed manual transmission; and is nicely equipped for $13,990, including stability control.

Why is stability control important? Because the Cube is aimed at relatively inexperienced drivers, those 18 to 25 years old. I would never let my new driver on the road without stability control. Seriously.

What’s fascinating to me is the psychographic opportunity Nissan thinks it has identified. The reasoning is that many of the intended buyers -- or drivers -- will still be living at home with one or both parents. Nissan proposes the Cube as their home away from home, their own lounge-like space to hang out with friends, decorate as they please and generally establish a base camp on the road to adulthood.

Though I am several decades beyond the target audience, I get it. The Cube’s interior -- the faraway windshield, the nearly vertical windshield pillars, the open seating, the airy cabin and towering headroom -- is more studio loft than economy car. For a car only 156.7 inches in length, over a wheelbase of 99.6 inches, the Cube is Alice’s looking glass of unexpected vastness. There are trays and flat surfaces carved into the doors and dash, places to throw stuff. There’s a kind of flower-box divot built over the dash and bungee straps built into the doors to hold things such as pens, iPods, sandals . . . what-everrr.

You might think all the headroom would go to waste -- I could wear a large raccoon on my head while driving, no problem. What I found is that with the open space, people in the back can comfortably carry on a conversation with the people in the front without feeling like they are breathing down their necks. So the car is uniquely social, which is how the kids like their media too.


Cargo space with the rear seat down is a very utilitarian 56 cubic feet. Meanwhile, the smoked-out rear passenger and back windows provide a serious amount of privacy. Uh-oh.

To be sure, the Cube has some conspicuous design grace notes. You will appreciate the rock-in-a-pond ripple motif in the cup holders, speakers and most notably the headliner. Also notable is the side-hinged rear hatch and the asymmetric wraparound rear window. All very cool.

The previous champion of boxiness, the Scion xB, demonstrated that -- as youth-oriented and Japan-chic as these square vehicles are -- older consumers liked them too. Nissan expects the demand for the Cube to be bimodal, which is to say, consisting primarily of customers in the 20- to 29-year-old range and their parents, 45 to 59 years old. If Dad is making the payments, is Junior going to deny him the keys?

How does the Cube drive? It’s OK. It doesn’t invite reckless abandon, that’s for sure, but you wouldn’t want it to. The model I drove, an SL with the continuously variable transmission (automatic), was competently quick and effortless to drive, with good, solid brakes, comfortable ride and very tight turning radius, making it super easy to park. But again, evaluating a car like this on its performance is like judging Bar Refaeli on her knowledge of trade policy.

With a little more money, kids can step up to the Krom package (pronounced “chrome”), with 16-inch alloy wheels, a thumping six-speaker stereo with iPod interface, tastier upholstery and interior lighting. At less than $20,000, the Cube Krom seems like a genuinely decent value.

With high style and an even higher coefficient of drag, the Cube seems to have what it takes to captivate the living-in-the-parents’-basement set. How far it will reach beyond that demographic, I’m not sure. It sure is boxy.


Raccoons for everybody.