This Cube was no square.

Image: netcarshow

The design mantra of longer, lower and wider was largely, if not exclusively an American construct, but was not something which survived exposure to congested European and Far Eastern city streets. It is therefore little surprise to observe that two of the most prolific car designing nations to have eschewed such architectural nostrums are Italy and Japan.

Shorter, taller and narrower as a philosophy was something that perhaps could be said to have (in the modern idiom at least) originated in Turin, but was taken up with some alacrity in cities as diverse as Hamamatsu, Ikeda, Shizuoka and Yokohama, since Japan’s cityscapes are at least as choked and traffic-ridden as those of its Latin counterparts.

The inherent limitations of such potentially restrictive silhouettes had the effect of giving rise to considerable creativity and in Japan at least, a playful sense of absurdist fun. Not entirely confined to Kei cars, the wider Japanese car industry, despite its often deadly serious nature, has been known to occasionally loosen its tie.

Already no strangers to whimsy, the Nissan Motor Company debuted the Pixar-like Chapeau concept in 1989, a vehicle which took the stovepipe motif to heights not seen since such items of millinery were all the rage. Not only a car which vaguely resembled a hat (hence the name[1]), but one where one could be worn without fear of it making contact with the roofliner. Of course, one man’s whimsy is another’s highly practical perambulatory device – it all depends on what you are wearing.

Racing ahead to 2001 and at that year’s Geneva Salon, Nissan displayed the Chappo concept, a thinly applied show car prelude to the following year’s production-ready Cube. Not that the 2002 car was the first Nissan model to bear that name. The Cube made its debut in 1998 as a more normative looking device[2], although that adjective only truly makes sense from a JDM perspective. The second generation Cube however, styled under the oversight of Nissan Chief Designer, Shiro Nakamura, was far more of a style statement.

Overturning convention was something of a JDM speciality and one Nissan had employed with no small degree of flair with a series of retro-futurist production cars under the Pike Factory umbrella. To some extent therefore, the 2002 Cube was a continuation of this philosophy, with more of an emphasis on the futurist. At an initial glance as uncompromising in its sheer surfaces as only a Japanese carmaker would consider, the 2002 Cube in reality was quite soft-formed and rounded – more akin to a pebble which had been gently softened and abraded over time by water and sand.

Image: netcarshow

It was this relationship between geometry and artistry that lent the Cube its visual appeal. But Nissan’s designers didn’t stop there. After all, a cube is by nature, symmetrical. Here, asymmetry was realised in the greenhouse, where the positioning and placement of the daylight openings was not mirrored on each side. Asymmetry too in the side-opening tailgate, which took up almost the entire rear of the vehicle. The DLO itself would become a feature, its sort-formed, round-edged and inset glazing creating the illusion of being sculped from solid.

Following on from the previous year’s Chappo concept, the Cube’s interior was designed as a ‘living space’ with an emphasis on creating an convivial environment, what Nissan described as a ‘mobile space’. Aimed a more youth-orientated audience who were not seduced by traditional automotive nostrums, the Cube was intended to represent the car as a club or salon – a place to meet and socialise. Regrettably, the Cube’s cabin décor, while laudably spacious and calm, lacked the visual flair its more uncompromised exterior style might have promised. Visibility aft the vast offside rear three-quarters was also somewhat compromised.

Technically, there was little of note, the Cube being underpinned by Nissan’s B platform, normally found underneath the Micra/March hatchback. Powertrain and suspension design was carried over as well, the Cube being powered by 1.4 or 1.5 litre litre engines coupled to either a conventional automatic or CVT transmission. An electrically actuated part-time four wheel drive system was available as an option.

A longer wheelbase 7-seater version called the Cubic was added to the range from 2003, which may have aided versatility, but rather unbalanced the visuals.

Image: auto-database

Primarily a domestic Japanese market offering, the Cube was never officially sold outside of Far-Eastern markets[3], although it nevertheless generated considerable attention and interest from the US and Europe owing to its off-beat visual appeal. It was this enthusiasm that prompted Nissan in 2008 to target the third generation Cube as a global offering.

In 2009, Car magazine heralded its UK debut (it went on sale there in Spring 2010), describing the Cube as “cool enough to out-cute a Mini.” Slightly larger than its predecessor, with a broader spread of powerplants, the third-generation model was a more polished product, with a more grown-up appeal. “It’s not a fashion statement, it’s a mission statement”, was Nissan’s PR position. Still a vehicle of considerable charm, and undoubtedly a better-honed product, it perhaps lost a little something in transition however.

Third series JDM Cube. Image: autoevolution

For all of the positive noises auto-enthusiasts make over JDM ephemera, when it come to connecting wallet and mouth, they tend to mutter excuses and back towards the door. The Cube was primarily viewed by most (journalists and public alike) as an amusing oddity (those wacky Japanese…) and as such was largely ignored to death.

Today, those who might have considered a Cube are directed by Nissan’s website towards the Juke, as eloquent an example of Nissan’s retrenchment and lack of confidence as one can render in torpid B-segment CUV terms. A product which requires no explanation and scares no horses. A vehicle routinely chosen by those who have no interest whatsoever in the car as aesthetic object. Not your typical Cube owner, we can therefore conclude. Or to put it another way, Nissan has nothing now to offer those willing to think (both inside and) outside the box.

An owner (and former DTW-ite) writes about his Cuboid adventures here.

[1] Spoken as a noun, chapeau means hat in French. However, employed as an interjection, preferably with an exclamation mark, chapeau! means ‘hats off!’, a metaphorical doffing or flinging aloft of one’s headwear to denote admiration or exultation. One could also employ it as a means of lauding Nissan for producing a car like this.

[2] The somewhat gawky looking first-gen Cube design appears more akin to one of ItalDesign’s less distinguished efforts or Nissan’s own mid-80s Prairie model.

[3] A thriving grey-import market for second-generation Cubes built up.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Boxed”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. The Nissan Cube. It’s been a while since I last saw one. Only 192 were sold here, but some have been imported as there are now 240 Cubes registered in the Netherlands.

    Compact cars make perfect sense in Europe and Japan. However cars have gotten bigger in every dimension or so it seems, for obvious reasons. It must be really difficult to design a short, narrow and tall car that meets all the requirements of safety and comfort and is appealing too. I can see the attraction in the Cube, but it’s not a car-like car, which will put more than a few people off, I think.

    The same can be said of the Chapeau concept. Here are two shots.

    Note how the driver and passenger seat are different.

    1. Is there no German equivalent? Briefträger Patrick in a Fridolin?

  2. Good morning Eóin. I really like the second generation Cube but the third generation model doesn’t work at all for me. The much larger radii curves in the DLO give it a Noddy-car appearance and it lacks the discipline of the earlier design. I suppose Nissan felt compelled to do something different, unfortunately.

    1. For those in whom my reference to Noddy was lost:

  3. Last week we learned that Ford spent a significant amount of money and effort to remove the radiused corners from Sierra mk1 windows, but look at this!

  4. Thanks for the reminder of a delightful car, Eóin. This might get a little punny, so apologies in advance. Even more than Italian car makers, Japanese car makers are forced to think inside the box, as it were, namely the strict dimensions regulated for the kei car. I know the Cube isn’t a kei car (and the “big” automakers tend to leave these cars to the specialists of Suzuki and Daihatsu, and Honda), but the need to create visual interest and maximum room within a strictly confined space does seem to permeate the rest of the car market as well, as evidenced by the plethora of Japanese SUVs like the Honda Stepwgn. The Cube is, to my mind, an example of this: create something interesting and space-efficient within a given floor plan.

    Like with the Sierra, the unobtrusive discipline of particularly the first generation: the crispness and straightness of the creases in an otherwise rather rounded design (nicely on show in the first picture), which itself plays tricks with the fundamentally boxy silhouette, make it an excellent design to my eyes. It isn’t a car for “car-people” and I wouldn’t dare to run one myself, but it is a refreshing take on the idea of a car. Like the similarly iconoclastic “booty” Renault Mégane, the Cube has a nicely planted stance that saves it from being a mere stylistic folly and – to my eyes at least – gives it more substance. As with the best designs, I can see many things in it that need decoding to be fully appreciated.

    Partly through your introduction, Eóin, I could not help but think of the Fiat Multipla and its Japanese cousin-in-excruciably-plain-clothes the Honda FR-V. I don’t think there has ever been a full meditation on the Multipla (or the FR-V, should it deserve one), has there? A search of the site brings up quite few hits, but most are more or less tangential, as far as I can see. The various “ludospace” offerings from Peugeot, Citroën and Renault try to do similar things, of course, substituting Japanese quirkiness for Gallic flair. Also, the KIA Soul tries to do something similar.

    It’s cartoonish/Tonka-toy looks have been diluted in the second generation, though.

    1. That first gen Soul was overseen by Schreyer and I’ve always felt it had an air of Skoda Roomster about it, if less whimsical and more ‘tough’.

      I’d endeavor to say the Soul got more ‘cutesy’ in its next generations, though, and really leaned in to what Nissan was trying to grasp with the Cube by using rounded forms over a square-ish shape.

    2. Improbably, I saw a first-gen Cube the other day, in fetching burgundy red, no less.

      There’s something very disciplined about the arrow-straight upper and lower DLO lines on the Soul. In the flesh it’s a refreshing sight: planted and “tough” but less “impotent rage-ey” than most SUVs.

      That said, one of the defining characteristics of the Cube, something that makes it an object that needs to be assessed in three dimensions and from different sides (hence the name? Or am I reading tea leaves?), is the asymmetry. All the others cars I mentioned are symmatrical. The only other obviously asymmetrical car that springs to mind (apart from an assortment of vans with a sliding door on one side, or the Discovery’s bum) is the Hyunday Veloster, but that’s quite a different beast.

  5. The Cube is perhaps the most architectural production car, though many concepts have taken this paradigm further.

  6. Since the second gen Cube appeared two years after the Toyota bB ( which I prefer ), it wasn’t a completely original idea.
    I agree with Tom V that the Multipla and FR-V deserve some attention – hard to believe neither has been replaced.

    1. The Toyota bB (sold as the Scion xB in the US) would be an interesting subject for examination in this light. Mervyn is correct in it making the Cube seem like a response to Toyota rather than a response to a market segment.

  7. As a previous owner of a Materia and a Multipla I’ve always been drawn to the quirky aesthetics of the Cube. I took the plunge last August and imported a brown/bronze generation three, with brown suede interior.
    It must be hard to beat as a car to spend time in whilst stationary; the materials and interior design touches are exquisite. It’s huge failing for me, is the CVT gearbox. The crazed hunt for an appropriate gear on a long motorway journey or on a steep incline is tiring. It spends too much time screaming away between five and six thousand rpm; the resulting fuel consumption is steep. Just keeping momentum is a challenge, it’s tiresome. On a flat journey that never exceeds 60mph it’s a delight.
    It’s thirstier than our Rover 75 V6 and less capable on the M62 than our Panda 4×4.
    Character can go a long way though, I still love it. Although I’d saw it for an immaculate pre-facelift Multipla in a heartbeat, if there were any left.

    1. Products in this market segment were primarily engineered and cosmetically designed so to speak for Japanese mothers to ferry kids for schooling, and for groceries. Hence we cannot expect much on a more challenging dynamic chores.

      I believe there is a clear demarcation in terms of design fundamentals for similarly-sized means of transport between Far East and EU manufacturers / brands.

  8. Eduardo, the Materia has been very briefly covered here, before.

    Autocar did a pretty good, short article on unusual Japanese car designs a few years ago. I think it’s good, as it’d tempt me to do more research on some of the cars. I looked up the Honda Life and it came in a surprisingly large number of varieties, over the years.

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