Used car review: 2009-11 Nissan Cube a hit with grandpas

Mark Toljagic
By Mark Toljagic
Posted on January 11th, 2013
1 Comments

Here’s a puzzler: what would Dr. Seuss and SpongeBob SquarePants drive?

The consensus points to the enigmatic Nissan Cube, which boldly crossed the Pacific in 2009 to infiltrate North American traffic with the hope that it would evoke a reaction. It did.

“The first weekend we had the car, we parked it at the zoo. When we came back, someone had spit right in the centre of the driver’s side window,” reported one hapless owner online.

The Cube joined the Honda Element, Scion xB and Kia Soul in the ignoble segment of rectilinear “toaster” cars. Actually, toaster may be a misnomer.

By comparison, the sleek and curvy T-Fal Avante parked on our kitchen counter looks like it was shaped in a NASA wind tunnel.

CONFIGURATION

The first Cube was introduced in Japan in 1998 and was replaced by the more stylish second generation in 2002. Both Japan-only models netted big sales at home.

Perhaps encouraged by the (mild) success of the Honda Element, Nissan exported the third-generation Cube to North America in 2009. It had grown larger, gaining 12 cm in the wheelbase and 25 cm in overall length, but was still shorter than the Versa hatchback.

To promote the Cube’s arrival, Nissan gave away 50 cars to creative Canadians engaged in social media. In a video, one contestant assaulted a Plasticine cube with a chef’s knife and a drill. Another modelled her Cube-inspired haircut.

It was all for naught. To the horror of Nissan’s product planners, many North American buyers were older.

“You don’t climb into a Cube, you sort of slide into it. The low flat floor and wide doors make ingress-egress drama-free, even for grandparents,” reads one of the many geriatric testimonials.

The Cube challenged auto design conventions with its rounded apertures and asymmetrical rear window. Many buyers admitted disliking the exterior, then changed their minds after stepping inside.

The five-seat interior was inspired by the “enveloping curves of a Jacuzzi” to promote a social environment, Nissan explained. Cues included a water ripple motif in the headliner and a wave-shaped dashboard. A toupee of shag carpeting finished off the dash top.

Blessed with immense headroom, the rear bench was mounted slightly higher and could slide back and forth to better accommodate passengers or cargo. The rear hatch swung open like a fridge door, which posed a problem in parking situations. Cargo space was disappointingly miserly.

Underpinned by the front-drive Versa platform, the Cube was utterly ordinary under its distinctive sheet metal. The sole engine was a chain-driven DOHC 1.8 L four-cylinder, good for 122 hp and 127 lb.-ft. of torque. Transmission choices included a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic supplied by Nissan subsidiary Jatco.

ON THE ROAD

Zero to 96 km/h comes up in 9.1 seconds, markedly slower than the rodent-guided Kia Soul at 7.9. Clearly, the Cube was built for comfort, not speed, as the ride is creamy smooth for such a short car due in part to the long suspension travel. Body roll in corners is pronounced.

The CVT transmission is tuned to work seamlessly with the tiny engine. Even the manual transmission works well without binding the linkage. Unfortunately, the car is geared low, to extract the best possible performance from the wee motor, which means highway noise is prominent (the upright windshield doesn’t help). “The noise is so loud it sounds like my windows are down,” griped one Cubist.

At least the car rewards patient drivers with good fuel economy, typically using 8.5 L/100 km.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Once owners get past the cartoon-like styling, the car delights with its roomy otherworldly interior, great visibility and excellent manoeuvrability. Why waste all that on iPhone-addicted youth?

“We’re not in the ‘target age’ when Nissan brought this car over, but who cares? We’re the ones with the money!” one codger posted.

Mechanical faults in the Japanese-built Cube have been few in number, but there is one to be taken seriously. The automatic CVT transmission has failed in early examples, prompting Nissan to double its CVT warranty to 10 years or 200,000 km (whichever occurs first). The warranty is transferable to subsequent owners.

Other reported problems, in small numbers, include squeaky brakes, rear alignment issues, faulty interior blower fans, broken door handles and short-lived batteries.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Jaguar XK, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and Toyota Avalon.

Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

2009-12 Nissan Cube

WHAT’S BEST: Funky workspace, refined drivetrain, cheap to keep

WHAT’S WORST: Lost-in-translation styling, not quick, buy a squeegee

TYPICAL GTA PRICES: 2009: $11,000; 2012: $20,000

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