White Goods : Nissan Cube, Six Weeks On

I’ve now had my Nissan Cube for a month and a half. Any Regrets?

Cube & Van

In the spirit of our strapline, I’m presenting Part Two of The World’s Least Relevant Long Term Test, referring to a car that, although still apparently on sale in Japan, flopped in Europe and is no longer available in the USA. My Nissan Cube is a third series (Z11) example, a 2010 1.6 litre manual, petrol-engined Kaizen model in Pearl White. I bought it in June 2015 at just under 30,000 miles.

Why Did I Buy A Cube?

As admitted in my previous piece on the Cube, my car purchasing has a hint of perversity to it. There are various alternatives I considered, not necessarily in the same price range or the same category as the Nissan. I missed an unfussed with, though reasonably high-mileage, E34 BMW M5 Touring last year before returning to my long-term desire for an Alfa Romeo Giulia (from 50 years back, not the long-awaited 159 replacement I’m afraid, Sergio) or maybe a similar aged Lancia before grudgingly acknowledging that I already have one old car on which to spend embarrassing amounts of money, and that a second might not be welcomed into my household. I even went through a phase of considering a Vauxhall Ampera, but concluded that the view out through its slit-like windows was too dispiriting.

So what were my actual criteria for choosing a car then? Well, in some way it should be interesting. It should be comfortable. It should have 4 doors, probably 5. It should have good visibility. It should have a decent engine in some sort of way. It should probably have a sunroof. It should …. Actually it was always more a case of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.

Trying to get practical and thinking of newer, conventionally powered cars I somehow fixed on two SUVs, a type of car I don’t feel much affinity for in general. A Mercedes GLK or a Skoda Yeti. The GLK is a last-generation C Class spin-off which has never been offered in the UK, is reasonably dimensioned, yet suitably Merc-like, but lacks the more excessive design crimes of most its contemporary brethren. I was taken by that for quite a while, but I could never justify the time to trek to Germany to look at the various tempting ones on offer.

The Yeti I really like. It’s neat and practical and, at the start of this year, I came close to committing, but the waiting list for a new one reflected the car’s popularity and I couldn’t find a used one to my preferred specification. Though never entirely discounting it, I did have second thoughts based on the car’s interior design which, although neat and practical too, is also unmemorable. At the same time I was also thinking small and looked at both a Volkswagen Up and a Renault Twingo. They both impressed me in various ways but, in the end, they are too small for my needs.

So, of course, I ended up deciding that a novelty car from Japan that was targeted towards a demographic that I clearly don’t fit into, and was on sale in the UK for less than two years before being quietly withdrawn, was the ideal vehicle for me. If you need more explanation as to the logic of that decision, so do I but, anyway, the month before last I bought my Nissan Cube.

Cube In Shade

Why Did No-one Else Buy A Cube?

To discuss the appeal, or otherwise, of the Cube, let’s compare it with the Nissan Juke. The Juke has been a huge success for Nissan in the UK whilst the Cube was an obvious disappointment. Looked at objectively, this is strange. Both cars offer distinctive looks, which some people enjoy and others hate. However, the Cube is undeniably more useful – it has better visibility and makes better use of its interior space. My opinion is also that it’s better looking, but that opinion can be viewed through my prejudices.

The Cube is a modernist concept, made endearing by a certain quirkiness such as the asymmetric rear door and the Shosi screen roof blind. The curvature and recessing around the side windows is a bit excessive, the previous model did it better, but I still find the whole attractive. It is a good-looking device, the outside suggesting its function perfectly and the inside giving you as much room as it can. But, of course, so does a SMEG fridge, this being the typical petrolhead condemnation of a car that doesn’t stir their Top Gearstick.

Driving the Cube, undoubtedly people don’t feel purposeful in a thrusting, seat-of-the-pants handling, hot-knife-through-butter gearshift sort of way. But these types of car sell very well in Japan and Nissan’s idea was that the Cube was going to appeal to Europeans who ‘aren’t passionate about cars, but are passionate about being individuals’ which, in the UK I suppose, means people who don’t watch Top Gear but subscribe to Blueprint. And those 1,000 people all bought one.

As for the rest of those who ‘aren’t passionate about cars’, Nissan found out what I could probably have told them; for that very reason they don’t expect to blow £15,000 on a new car that’s being presented as a lifestyle statement. So the conclusion I’ll draw on Nissan’s behalf is that people just take their cars too seriously in Europe

Salarymen+BlackDiamond

The mid 20th Century view of Japanese culture was that it was ultra conventional. Images of lines of identically dressed ‘salarymen’ overseeing the production of generations of nondescript Datsun Sunnys gave Europeans skewed preconceptions. These preconceptions were particularly dangerous for the Western motor industry who arrogantly assumed that all Japan could do was copy. They were, of course, disabused of this many years ago, but the Cube’s failure in Europe does highlight the difference between the Japanese domestic market and, possibly, everywhere else.

There are many oddball, niche market cars available in Japan, and Europe usually only sees the tip of the iceberg. Nissan’s Pike Factory cars designed by Naoki Sakai (BE-1, S-Cargo, Pao, Figaro) are the best known outside Japan and these enjoyed a grey import minor cult status in the UK, particularly the Figaro. Later, other cars as disparate as the ludicrous, but somehow appealing, Mitsuoka Viewt and the Series 2 Cube got imported unofficially. The popularity of the grey Cube gave Nissan good reason to be optimistic for selling it officially, but even their modest UK goal of 2,000 in the first year was unachievable.

Nissan ToasterPossibly Japan has a more sophisticated and pragmatic attitude to products. Over here things have to fit into a recognisable category – we are actually the ones who remain, at heart, very conservative. The Western worship of ‘cool’ is, in itself, a very conservative quest. Much Japanese fashion and design is far from ‘cool’ and that is its attraction.

Both the Cube and Juke have a juvenile aspect to them – the Cube in white looks like the ambulance that Postman Pat might be carted off in after a bad encounter with a dog, whilst the Juke is a Euro processed Manga version of a grown up SUV. We rejected one but accepted the other with open arms. Why? The Juke seems quirky, but still presses the right buttons of SUV meaningfulness. It seems unconventional, but is really quite ordinary, which to me is a reasonable definition of ‘cool’. No-one is really going to feel ‘cool’ in a Cube.

The Juke. Quirky, but popular.
The Nissan Juke. Quirky, yet deeply ordinary, yet highly popular.

The Juke is not modernist. Its window area is, apparently, inspired by a motorcycle crash helmet. Yes, I can see that, but….. I have a Schuberth C3 bike helmet and I find it quite elegant, because that is its function …. but translating that to a car is just meaningless. Notably, unlike the Cube, the Juke’s design was initiated in the UK and that could suggest that Nissan UK has a good handle on the nation’s zeitgeist, though it also seems to have exceeded sales expectations worldwide.

And, of course, it is built here (as well as Japan and Indonesia) so Nissan’s UK dealers would be pushing it hard – some Cubes, incidentally, are said to have sat in showrooms for over a year.  Actually I don’t mind the Juke’s existence at all – it is a refreshing alternative to, say, Ford’s recent fussy-yet-conservative output. Its detailing is dire in places but, overall, it looks chunky outside, and a bit science-fiction starfighter inside (actually, continuing the crash helmet theme, it’s supposed to remind you of a motorcycle), and this is why people like it. It makes them feel purposeful, the references are unambiguous and it appeals to a wide range, around half a million buyers in Europe at present. Which, insufferable snob that I am, is another reason why I wouldn’t buy one.

Actually, not that slab sided.
Actually, not that slab sided.

Comparing the Cube to the Juke, although they are based on the same Renault/Nissan B Platform wheelbase, the Juke is 145mm longer and 70mm wider. But these extra dimensions don’t give the Juke’s passengers more space, especially since it is 110mm lower. The only place where the Juke is probably preferable for the driver, if not the passengers, is on a motorway, where the lack of slab sides and upright windscreen make a difference, and probably on winding roads where it is a bit more handling oriented, though not as comfortable.

Driving the Cube involves very few compromises. For a short car it is spacious and comfortable. Reviews on its UK release seemed uniformly positive. Even EVO liked it, though mentioning of course that the driving experience didn’t really suit their sort of style. The nearest competitor at the time was, maybe, the Kia Soul, itself possibly inspired in part by the previous model Cube, although Kia claim the influence was a wild boar. It had more conventional styling and was a bit cheaper. It wasn’t actually a great seller, but eclipsed the Cube four times over in 2010 and has stayed around. It was available in a wider range, including diesel and is even now sold as an EV.

Both diesel and range/choice are big sellers. Even if, when you do the sums, the extra cost of buying a diesel version of a Nissan Juke for £1,000 extra might mean that you will need to cover 50,000 miles or more before you recoup the cost, in the UK we have been in love with noxious oil-burners for many years now. I drive a diesel Kangoo Estate quite frequently and I used to find its engine surprisingly refined, at least compared with my memory of the lump in a Peugeot 405 Estate I drove a lot 20 years back.

But the refinement of the Cube’s engine is far, far better, which reminds me that petrol units have advanced too. Personally, however well disguised it is, I dislike the underlying coarseness and grudging response of diesel so much that I’d probably pay a premium for a petrol engine, but I don’t seem typical and market preconceptions die hard, so the lack of a diesel Cube will have affected sales, logical or not.

Also, there were really just two Cube trim levels, three if you count the rarer still LDN special edition. Today, we like scrolling down and clicking check boxes, persuading ourselves that we are affirming our individuality. MINI set the way and others followed. For cars like the Cube, presented as lifestyle choices rather than no frills runabouts, buyers expected choice and maybe Nissan didn’t offer enough.

What’s Good And Bad About The Cube?

As a city or town car, the Cube wins. The forward view through large screen and glass roof and around thick A pillars set a decent distance from the driver, is a pleasure. The sunvisors are, however, inexplicably huge, coming almost halfway down the windscreen and blocking out so much that I had to ask my front seat passenger not to use theirs when on the move. The asymmetry of the rear section means that the view over my right shoulder is worse than over my left which actually makes the reversing camera useful.

Additionally, the squared off front and rear initially finds you allowing for an overhang of metal when parking that isn’t actually there. Ride comfort is good, at the expense of some body roll but, as I mentioned in my previous piece, the up-and-down of short speed bumps can catch it out, resulting in a harsh jolt that is completely out of character with the rest of the driving experience.

Cube Fridge

As far as accommodation is concerned, it is excellent. I’m tall at 1.93m, but I find myself driving the Cube with the seat a few notches forward of its far back position and enough headroom for me to wear a top hat (I imagine). The front seats are good and the sliding rear seats with reclining backs and armrest (with inbuilt cupholders, of course) plus a horizontal window line, give rear passengers that S-Class feeling on the cheap and ensures that they don’t feel like they are travelling second-class, though the blind set-up means that the sunroof doesn’t extend to their area.

With the armrest up, you can fit three adults abreast, and in more comfort than nearly any other sub-4 metre long car. Boot space is naturally not huge with the seats back, but a semi-mobile passenger found it very easy to enter the rear and sat in comfort with their wheelchair behind them in the boot. The climate control performance is very good and the sound system is fine, though the speaker system is not quite in the mini concert hall category of the Audi.

Outside town I was pleasantly surprised. Steering is precise and it handles well. Acceleration is adequate, but it’s easy to see 100mph on the motorway if you wish and, on a wind-free day, it remains perfectly stable. Despite the unpromising shape, engine and wind noise aren’t bad at all and, at an extreme, on a gusty, rainy day there was a bit more buffeting at high speed but, really, it feels perfectly safe and that is not what the Cube is for anyway.

I mentioned above my desire for a car with a ‘decent’ engine. Really I mean interesting, and I can’t pretend that the 1600cc 4 cylinder 108hp HR petrol-fed unit fitted to European specification Cubes is anything more than good, everyday motor industry fare. Ever contrary, I’d rather have some state-of-the-art 900cc supercharged 2 cylinder, just for interest’s sake, even if it only managed 20mpg under real-world driving. But there are upsides. The engine is so quiet at idle that, when I first drove the car, I thought it might have stop-and-start. That isn’t the case but the only problem is that, combined with the non-linear response of the throttle, it’s near impossible to judge your revs by ear when moving off, resulting a few times in either a stall or an unseemly scrabble of tyres.

This is something you get used to though. Fuel consumption so far has been variable, between the low and high 30s. This certainly isn’t great by modern standards, and the shape won’t help consumption at speed certainly, but my driving style is, admittedly, lead-footed and the above figures were either round London or at (relatively high) speed on mainly dual carriageways. So the mid 40s should be possible to attain and I’m happy with that as I don’t drive tens of thousands of miles every year, so I can afford to indulge my antipathy to diesel.

Cube InstrumentsOn further acquaintance the instrument panel graphics disappoint a bit. I’m pleased that they are quite conventional in layout and are legible; with two round dials, clear displays for fuel and water temperature plus warning lights, set ahead of the driver. But, in order to make them look more interesting, they employ a rather crass airbrushed graphic to simulate a backlit floating effect. Since you see a lot of this when driving, it begins to irritate. I’m not that interested in trip computers, so it doesn’t worry me that the Cube’s is pretty basic, and controlled not from a convenient stalk or steering wheel control, but by clumsily pushing on the hard little button projecting from the instrument panel.

Cube Connect

The rest of the dashboard is excellent. I like the wavy vertical wall with conveniently positioned air vents though, with my default suspicion of design cross-pollination, a bit less so when I learn it’s inspired by a jacuzzi – why not a urinal? The previous generation Nissan Connect system does enough (satnav, sound system with USB input, Cube Climate Controlhands-free phone integration, reversing camera) and has been trouble-free so far, and the dedicated climate control section is conveniently placed, good looking and intuitive. My innocence in the ways of modern cars means that I’m still assessing the advantages or otherwise of keyless entry, automatic headlamps and rain sensitive wipers – these last seem occasionally too sensitive, at other times not sensitive enough. I empathise. Speed limiting or cruise control I’ve never found a use for, so the buttons on the right of the steering wheel boss are unlikely to see use.

Cube JacuzziAs regards storage, there are countless cup and bottle holders – I mean that literally since, although I counted 11 in my previous piece, on reflection one is siamesed and I can’t decide whether it counts as 1½ or 2. However some more usable rectangular section pockets, cubby holes and under-seat storage would have been useful and are a surprising omission. The seats are comfortable, though lacking side support, and are finished in a disappointingly ordinary looking charcoal cloth.

The rear seat backs fold down, but the bases don’t fold forward, estate-wise, so you don’t get a uniformly flat floor for loading. This all hints a bit at style over content, and that Nissan never fully expected the average Cube owner to really use the car as a practical worktool, which is probably often the case. Overall, the interior remains a nice place to be, but there is a feeling that they could have pushed it a bit further, and that budget or inspiration ran out somewhere during the interior layout.

For the driver, I’d prefer the wheel to adjust upwards slightly more that it does, but it’s no big deal. What is more disappointing is the gearchange. The previous Cube had a column shift operated automatic which, in a way, suited the whole concept, although I can’t say I really enjoy driving small-engined autos. This version was also offered in a CVT version, which I haven’t tried. The manual gearbox on mine is fine in itself, but the gearstick is down on the floor, when a dash mounted change closer to the wheel would have been far preferable.

Quasar Unipower
The Real Cube – 1967 Quasar-Unipower City-Car

Finally there is the syndrome of who drives what. Try as I might, I still haven’t softened my driving style to complement the Nissan. As such, I often drive it at the same speed I drove my Audi S6. With that large, wide-wheeled, chrome-less, bright blue car, no-one ever seemed to pull in front of me when I had right of way but, already, this has happened several times in the Cube. Do they think, cynically, that the Cube driver is an effete softy who will always give ground, or is it purely that many people judge a car’s speed not on perception, but on preconception?

At present, though, I’m very happy with it. It combines the quirkiness of the Micra-based Pike Factory cars of twenty-five or so years ago, with usability and practicality. It has depth beyond its willfully different looks. I was a great advocate of the previous generation Renault Kangoo and Citroen Berlingo, though they have both bloated for the worse in their current incarnations.  The Cube hints at a more sophisticated version of these cars, and the entire genre should, in a logical world, be really popular. The fact that many people who will never spend their time exploring flat-out handling potential buy MINIs instead of Cubes, and their like, is really their loss.

The only real niggles so far are small, and qualified. I’m unlikely to tire of it too soon, in the way I know I would a Juke which is, at heart, a very ordinary car in performance, function and accommodation. It also feels better made than a Citroen C3 Picasso, which is one of the first cars I think of when considering competitors (though I don’t really think the Cube sits easily in the mini-MPV category and, anyway, with over 300,000 European sales the Citroen has the Cube well beaten). For the next instalment, I will aim for that 40+ mpg figure and so will try to start driving it in a more leisurely, relaxed sort of way – more like someone who isn’t passionate about cars.

Nissan's original intended demographic - 2010 collaboration with fashion designer Amy Molyneaux. Image : stylecartel.com
Nissan’s original intended demographic – 2010 collaboration with fashion designer Amy Molyneaux. Image : stylecartel.com

4 thoughts on “White Goods : Nissan Cube, Six Weeks On”

  1. That the Cube isn’t more practical is a mild disappointment. The rather coarse Kangoo and Berlingo probably beat the Cube on that score. The designers at Nissan went for a practicalesque style but not all the substance. The rear seats absolutely should have been able to fold flat. As in the 2000 and 2007 Mondeo it is enexcusable.
    The HVAC controls look tricky too.

  2. As you say, my disappointment is ‘mild’ that the Cube wasn’t developed that bit further. I assume that it was decided that it wasn’t worth bothering bearing in mind the needs of the supposed customer base. I think that was a mistake.

    But speaking as someone with a marked aversion to modern car instruction manuals, I find the HVAC control fine to use. It sits in isolation from the other controls for driver or passenger.

  3. Charm versus practicality? I suppose it’s a question of priorities. Personally, having lived with an eminently practical and somewhat unexciting car for two years, I’m developing an itch for something a little more engaging. Ideally, I’d always have something that can lug loads and swallow bikes and boxes, but the amount of times I require such utility is steadily decreasing. Vans are better for load lugging anyway.

    For someone with a young family, I can understand why the Cube would be unsatisfying – (Although I can imagine kids loving it). For someone who doesn’t, its other qualities can shine through.

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