Nissan Cube : Hip or Square?

Why I Bought A Cube.

Under N for Nissan
Under N for Nissan

Many petrolheads would condemn the Nissan Cube as being a superficial thing, the sort of car bought by metropolitan types with no interest in or knowledge of cars. Having lived in London for all my adult life, I can’t really avoid the Metropolitan tag but, without bragging, I know a lot about cars (too much probably) and I like driving fast (too fast probably) and I like a car with an interesting engine.

So why don’t I dislike the Cube with its mundane Nissan/Renault B Platform underpinnings? Because I find it a very honest vehicle in many ways. What I like about it is that it is unashamedly designed as an appliance. Most cars are really no more than that, but they flatter themselves otherwise and forgo certain essential attributes such as comfort and convenience. The fiddling around on the new Astra, for example, the sloping roofline, etc, all aim to make the driver think that they could be a ‘Ring hero, if they wanted. The Cube has no such illusions. It seems to know exactly what it is.

Also, it challenges my obsessive inclination towards symmetry, and that is good. Citroen, in their heyday, liked a bit of asymmetry – the offset bonnet vents on CX and SM, the offset chevrons, they even let Berliet do a light truck with an offset radiator grille. All these things irritated me slightly once, but I prefer to embrace my irritants.

One reason for changing my current aged Audi S6 is its dreadful fuel consumption, particularly as it ends up being used extensively around town. Obviously that affects my wallet, but more important is that I just find it unseemly, a bit embarrassing, to be pissing all that petrol away. The other reason is that I’ve kept it for five years, four longer than intended, and it would be interesting to try something else. In terms of what else, my only criteria were that it shouldn’t be longer then the Audi and should have 4 doors and, preferably, a fifth one.

This was my basis for making what was, as have been most my motoring decisions, a relatively spur of the moment purchase. Not that I hadn’t researched, I searched out some examples on Autotrader a few months ago, but had no time to travel to the nearest likely looking one. Since then I’ve toyed with a bunch of alternatives, for a couple of weeks a Lancia Flavia (a Sixties one, not a rebadged Chrysler, please), but chiefly a Mercedes GLK. However that would have meant a trip to Germany to view and, only maybe, buy a model that isn’t sold in the UK. So you’ll gather from that fact that I don’t exactly focus my car buying strategy.

But the week before last, a friend sent me a photo of his car and, parked behind it was a Cube, which got me started again and I went back to Autotrader and found a reasonable mileage example at CarGiant, just 8 miles away from me. Last Thursday I found myself even closer, so rode over to look and, an hour later I’d bought it. Thank you for the reminder Mark.

Nissan & Audi 1
Like the Qashqai , it’s not actually as big as it looks – or is it?

The first Cube (1998 – 2002) was a reasonably nondescript mini MPV shape based on the then current Micra. It was the second version (2002-2008) that caught people’s eye with its deliberate boxiness and asymmetric glasshouse. It was a suitable successor to the great Pike Factory cars and became a minor grey export cult, with several hundred being imported to the UK alone. Inspired by this, Nissan decided to offer the third version (2008 to present) officially in both Europe and North America. In their reckoning there was a young, sophisticated, reasonably well-off demographic in Europe and America who loved the Cube but only a few of them were buying it as a grey import. By making it an official Nissan product, backed by dealers and warranties, this market would surely open up.

Introduced to the UK in late 2009, Nissan aimed low at first, expecting to sell only 2,000 in its first year. In the event they were actually aiming high – by the time Nissan took it off the European market, less than 2 years later, just over 1,000 had been registered in the UK, against over 10,000 Kia Souls in the same period. In the US it did last for 6 years starting strongly but soon faltering, and was also comprehensively outsold by the cheaper Soul.

German Cube
They handed the doors for the LHD market.

Why did it fail? Price apart, and bearing in mind that many younger people were badly hit by the 2008 financial crisis that is a definite consideration, if you really don’t care for the world of cars, which is the case with many in their 20s and 30s, you probably buy a car that looks like any other, maybe something that you think is good value and reliable. If you want to make a statement at all it is that ‘these things mean nothing to me’. You certainly won’t buy a Cube, for the very reason that it has been designed by a corporation with ‘you’ in mind. Buying one says, first, I fell for the hype and , second, that actually I do care. Nissan, of course, thought otherwise. On announcing its launch in the UK they put out the following :

“Distinctive, enjoyable and adaptable, the Nissan Cube will offer an unmatched sense of ‘smart simplicity’. It builds on a Cube DNA of individuality and non-automotive style, and adds an enhanced level of humanistic charm and clever design.  We know there will be a community of car-buyers in Europe who will really identify with Cube and will fall for its practicality, as well as its personality.”

“Cube will appeal to customers who perhaps aren’t passionate about cars, but are passionate about being individuals. Cube isn’t a fashion statement, it’s a mission statement: I’m serious about enjoying my life.”

“Cube will offer car buyers something unique, distinctive, friendly and fun – a car as a true extension of its owners’ personality.”

Of course, as is often the case with such demographically targeted vehicles, part of the sales slack for the Cube got taken up elsewhere by the very people who might have been expected to scorn it. In the US, the average Cube buyer was actually in their 40s. There is the theory that older people like cars like this because they are easy to access and they really don’t care one way or the other what they look like. You can also postulate that older people better appreciate interesting design and are less conservative than the young – but I would say that wouldn’t I?

Cube 2 - Grey Import Favourite
Cube 2 – A Grey, Grey Import

Another point is that Nissan had already hit the spot perfectly with Cube 2. It was the most cubic Cube. Cube 3 seemed to be trying a bit too hard with the excessively large radiuses of its windows but, despite this, I didn’t consider looking for a (better looking) grey import, previous model Cube because I judged that the later version would be the better drive. And I’m sure it is

The one I’ve bought was, relatively speaking, the most popular UK model. A 1.6 litre, petrol engined, manual Kaizen version in pearl white, with what I’d judge the essential inclusion of a glass sunroof and airconditioning. It also has an integrated sound system, satnav and reversing camera, plus cruise control, automatic lights and automatic wipers for those times when I’m driving with my eyes closed. My own preference would possibly have been be the limited edition LDN (Lounge Design) with CVT which I think you could get in a green-blue colour with a light coloured dashboard and suede look seats. However with only 5 shown registered that would be hard to find – and there were problems reported with the transmission slipping – though Nissan seem to have gone to pains to address them.

The Cube has a lot of cup holders, eleven if you count the ones in the doors, presumably because the imagined owner and his or her chums always have a few Lattes on the go. Disappointingly, however, there is a dearth of practical cubbyholes. There’s an OK glove box, plus various slits in plastic mouldings that you can squeeze the odd coiled USB cable into, but a lack of decently sized pockets and boxes. There are gaping voids beneath the front seats that could have been turned into lockers with a bit of thought but, sitting in the Cube, satisfying though I find the dashboard, there’s a feeling that ingenuity flagged when dealing with seats and storage.

The upholstery of the Kaizen version is a very dull charcoal grey and, unlike the stylish looking faux bench seat of the CVT version, manuals make do with two very ordinary, if comfortable enough, seats that could have come from any of the lower range Nissans. Having lived through that period, it holds no allure for me, but I’d still prefer the slightly Seventies brown suede-look seats of the LDN model.

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Particularly irritating, and soon likely to find itself bent into a cruel shape and thrown into a corner, is a detachable flappy thing that is supposed to hide your boot contents from view. However, returning to positives, although it doesn’t open, the sunroof is a delight, with the options of either a fully opaque blind sliding from the front or a translucent one in the style of a Shoji screen sliding from the rear. The only downside of this sliding blind is that it prevents a similar glass roof for rear seat passengers.

Rear passengers do get a good deal otherwise. Electric windows of their own, good visibility, armrest, adjustable legroom and, even, reclining backs. The dashboard is a wavy wall with a thankfully restrained binnacle ahead of the driver for essential instruments, a central LCD screen for entertainment and navigation, and a circular housing for climate control. It doesn’t let gimmickry overshadow function and all controls are clear, intuitive and do all I’d need.  No smoker’s pack has been fitted.

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As for driving, it’s as vice-free as I’d expect a modern car to be. I’ll not go into details until I’ve lived with it for a while and driven it under a range of conditions but steering is precise and weighted just right for around town. Roadholding seems good, albeit with a bit of old-fashioned body roll which, as a Citroen driver, I’m perfectly happy with. Old habits die hard, so I imagine I will be able to give, at some time, a totally gratuitous report on its hoonability. I haven’t yet experienced the wind noise that the bluff body probably produces on motorways but, around town, it is a relaxing environment, unsurprisingly far better riding and less frantic than the jittery Audi except, surprisingly, over certain speed humps, which is possibly a result of its height, though not its wheelbase which is actually only 150mm less than the Audi’s.

The engine is flexible and quiet, though probably less so when extended outside town and I will miss the distinctively characterful sound of the Audi’s 5 cylinder turbo and, at times, its performance, but not it’s addiction to 98 Octane. If you come at it from the other end, you realise that the Nissan’s shape will never make its consumption class-leading but, for me, it will certainly be a huge improvement

Now we come to the difficult fact that the Cube is one of those cars that was sold using the F-Word. Only the other day, I joined in giving the unfortunate CEO of Citroen a good, metaphorical kicking for her telling us how her new products will be FUN. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had no desire to be told I was going to have FUN. I have sat stony-faced through party conjurers and circus clowns whilst others howled with delight. So it’s not the ‘look at me, I’m so zany, I must be interesting’ aspect of the Cube I like. I’ve never flattered myself that any car I have driven embellished my character in any way. But some cars just give pleasure in ways you can’t quite analyse and, for me, the Cube does.

One of these cars has more depth than the other.
One of these cars is higher. The other has more depth.

Returning to the subject of hooning, after buying it I suddenly remembered a photo on the website of the self-proclaimed World’s Best Car Magazine of their then resident throttle-god, Jethro Bovingdon, getting their long-term test Cube airborne and bringing it down heavily on its front tray.  Apart from reflecting on the oddness of publicising such sub Top Gear stuff, I suddenly feared that I might just have bought their knackered cast-off. Fortunately, a registration check shows this was not the case.

In fact I’ve only ever bought two cars that, when I drove them away for the first time as an owner, didn’t make me wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake. They were a new, first generation Renault Espace and a (then) 23 year old 24,000 mile Citroen SM. The others mostly ended up being fine, but they took a while to find their way into my affection. However, I’ll now add the Cube to that first list. If I’d bought it for around £16,000 nearly five years back, I think I’d be more disappointed that parts of its interior execution are a bit half-hearted, and it is neither as focussed at the first Espace was nor does it have the now 42 year old Citroen’s depth and true otherness, but then what does? Will it wear off? We’ll see.

Nissan & Audi 2

8 thoughts on “Nissan Cube : Hip or Square?”

  1. Excellent! Although I prefer the styling of the mk2 Cube, I didn’t know they sold a manual transmission model of the mk3 so this will be an interesting long term test. In the spirit of Kaizen, you could continuously improve the Cube – perhaps find LDN seat trim at a wreckers and swap it over? Roadtrip to Dieppe to get Renaultsport to address the handling seeing as there’s Clio parts under the squircles? I will be sad to see the Audi go though. Blue with blue seats! Err, I mean, 5-cylinder turbo 4wd rally heritage…

    1. Thank you Mark. I seem to keep getting it the wrong way round. I know various members of an RS6 Forum who would pay good money for the Audi … except it’s an auto mate, who wants an auto? Actually it suits the automatic well, but there’s no getting round those manly manual preconceptions.

      Now I have a manual Cube, whereas really an auto suits it better. And on Cube 2 you got the auto with a chunky looking column shift. A dashboard shift would have suited the manual Cube better, but it’s a sadly ordinary stick on the floor.

      I’m still in denial over getting rid of the Audi. I wish there were more discerning people like you in the Northern Hemisphere – most the time I feel like the guy in Cabaret who is in love with a gorilla. It’s parked in a corner at work and I’ve made no effort at all yet. Soon though someone is going to complain that I’m taking up too many parking spaces and I’ll need to act. If I can’t get it a good home, as a contingency my Mum freely offered me a space in her driveway!

  2. I lazily proffered the ‘shoulda got the manual’ trope to a Saab enthusiast recently who then proceeded in the Saabist manner to give me a long and detailed lecture about how the classic 900 Turbo S with an automatic was such a perfect drivetrain combination for hooning about in that one would be a bit dim to stir one’s own gears with a high-output turbo engine. Big torquey engines really don’t reward the effort of shifting gears like small revvy engines do either. Hopefully big blue finds a home, altho with a free offer of offstreet parking I wouldn’t be in a hurry to part with it.

    1. Sean: Maybe you should just look on yourself as the curator of an individualistic (and growing) car collection…

      Mark: I often heartily wish my own Saab was an automatic. Saab gearshifts appeared to get worse as the years wore on. While my recollection of contemporary pre-GM Saab 900’s suggests the gearchange was decent enough, they were never a car you’d swap gears for the simple pleasure of it.

    2. I’m in two minds about autos. Obviously using a manual competently is a skill worth employing, and enjoying. And it gives you something to do on a boring drive. But some manual gearchanges are pretty unrewarding to use, as Eoin points out.

      A few years back I was sniped at by some kid from the US at TWBCM when I wrote about the Audi honestly, though he thought disparagingly. He came out with some rubbish such as ‘how could Audi make an auto S6?’ as if the manual was the sporting holy grail. He also made a rather offensively ageist and inaccurate comment about the sort of car I should own. My revenge was passive, finding a video of him sliding his (manual) S6 rather poorly around an empty snow covered car park. Way To Go, Dude!

      But driving a flexible engine on an auto is a skill of its own, though left-foot braking is mandatory really. Of course, if you’re Walter Rohrl you can heel and toe and dance on the pedals of a manual but, having big feet and lacking the requisite ankle articulation, I find that difficult so I can’t hold the braking of a manual into a corner as I can an auto. So I suppose I’ve just talked myself into a metaphorical corner where the kid from Palookaville was right. If I was a better driver (and had dancer’s feet) an auto would hold no advantages.

      Possibly the difficulty in parking my currently growing car collection in London might be solved by the Cube’s shape. I have a forklift at work – could I stack them?

    3. Sean: It’s annoying that you have to suffer through some pub bore nonsense about transmission choice. For all the talk about manuals being the holy grail, most of the grown-ups that actually buy big fast estates buy autos. Whether it’s an AMG E(actually a 55 but once was a)63, an HSV Clubsport Tourer or a Subaru Legacy GT-B wagon. I’m guessing that modern fast Audi engines come attached to whatever they’re calling DSG these days (S-tronic?) with electronic handbrakes so the palookaville kid’s days of three-pedal tailfeather shaking in snowy carparks are numbered if he ever wants to trade up to a more modern RS6. There are many things I recall from the film Layer Cake, but Daniel Craig executing perfect heel & toe downshifts in his RS6 Avant wasn’t one of them.

      Eóin: from memory the gist of the argument about the 900 turbo auto was that the automatic was more durable than the manual and did a better job keeping the engine on-boost. The last CAR car I drove was the bright red Saab 9-5 longterm (terminal?) test car, which was a manual for reasons only European large front-drive diesel saloon drivers can fathom. I remember thinking that a big spacious comfy car like this shouldn’t be demanding me to push an extra pedal and wave this indifferent, long-throw wand in the floor about to get up to cruising speed or potter around town. Before I get accused of Nespresso machine ownership or only browsing e-books these days I will say that I can appreciate the simple pleasure of changing gears manually, and have access to manual transmission cars to drive. But not every car needs to be so to offer an enjoyable driving experience.

    4. I sort of understand that, if you have been brought up in a country knowing that Europeans and their like (providing you’re aware they exist) have a sometimes skewed and unjust idea of you as a nation who don’t appreciate the finer things in motoring, then you might overcompensate by adopting some European dogmas of your own – Detroit = Slushbox / Europe = Crisp 5 Speed Manual. I used to chortle at a minor film/TV trope in US dramas where a protagonist looks in horror at a car before exclaiming ‘but I can’t drive stick’ but nowadays I come across quite a few people in the UK who say the same, and why not?. Some cars are indisputably manual cars (Elise) and others (S-Class) certainly auto cars. Some might be either way, though I’d judge my S6, like its RS6 successors is actually better as an auto (though the Porsche built RS4 that is the lookalike contemporary of my car should be manual). As for the Cube, it should be an auto – though I’m not sure about CVT.

  3. As you originally indicated, Sean, there is a lot of wit and originality in the Cube, and one cannot help but feel a sense of warmth towards it. I like the wavy dash, the culturally authentic blind for the sunroof, and the asymmetrical rear.

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