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Is Nissan Cube the future of cars?

Nissan's boxy Cube may be what cars will be like in the future: small, light, fuel-efficient, functional and fun.

Published May 3, 2008
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DETROIT–Affordable transportation in the not-so-distant future will need to be smaller, lighter and have minimal horsepower – it’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Instead of speed and power, strong functional design will be the new emotional draw for new-car buyers.

VIDEO:Driving the Nissan Cube

For those hooked on burning rubber or driving vehicles larger than a one-room apartment, this “future of driving” may sound like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

But after spending a day driving Nissan’s Cube in Detroit (parts of which definitely qualify as “apocalyptic” right now), the prospect of affordable family vehicles will be anything but dull or lifeless.

The rectilinear Cube is currently sold only in Japan. It’s a five-passenger, five-door hatchback with front- or all-wheel-drive that’s based on the same underpinnings as Nissan’s subcompact Versa.

Its box-on-wheels shape may look radical to you and me. But the Cube (called Chappo in concept form) was one of a gaggle of boxy, tall-wagon city cars that debuted at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show. At the time, Nissan said the Cube was a car not just for driving, but a “social space” where Japanese 20-somethings would want to “meet and relax.”

Now, seven years on, Nissan Canada has decided to sell the next generation Cube here by early next year.

“Don’t expect a radical departure from the existing Cube,” says Larry Dominique, Nissan’s vice-president of product planning. Most of the changes to the next model will be to meet our government regulations.

What Nissan defines as “Cubeness” – its whacked-out volume-to-footprint ratio, box-on-wheels aesthetics, asymmetrical rear glass, flexible seating, “living room” interior – will carry over pretty much as is. To drum up interest, the automaker offered Wheels an exclusive first drive in the only example officially on the road in North America.

It’s unfair to provide driving impressions on the 2007 right-hand drive Japanese model I piloted. But in general terms, the Cube as it is makes for an extraordinarily roomy, comfortable and economical commuter car.

For some, one of the problems with traditional small cars is, well, they’re just too small.

But the dearth of curvature in the Cube’s shape creates an interior volume larger than a Maxima in a footprint shorter than a Versa.

The Cube’s tall door openings make it a snap to get in and out of the vehicle. Once inside, its front seat looks like a bench. But it splits, 60/40 in the driver’s favour, with a large fold-down armrest. The column shifter removes the need for a centre console, helping to make the cabin feel big-car big. You can even slide the rear seats forward to increase the cargo room out back.

Nissan won’t say, but expect the 1.8 L with 122 hp from the Versa to replace the 1.4 L, 72 hp four-cylinder found in this older Cube, with a small premium in price over the Versa’s starting point of $14,598.

Obviously, the current Cube’s 14-second-plus run to 100 km/h won’t beat a 350Z sports car in a stoplight grand prix.

But even with the Japanese lawn-mower mill and an automatic transmission with only four gears, the Cube had no problem entering freeways and keeping up with traffic at 120 km/h.

Nissan has committed to an electric car by 2010, but not necessarily in the Cube.

However, the existing gas-only model’s combo of a low curb weight (1,080 kg) and just enough horsepower made for an as-tested fuel consumption number of just under 6.0 L/100 km.

Beyond its friendly styling, hotel-suite-room-with-a-view interior, and excellent fuel economy, perhaps the Cube’s best city-driving quality is its composed suspension.

Driving southwest of downtown Detroit, along Michigan Ave. in the Corktown district, near abandoned landmarks like Tiger Stadium and Michigan Central Train Station, the pavement ends and the road turns to a mix of cobblestones and potholes the size of P.E.I.

Its relatively tall height and comfy suspension guaranteed some roll in the corners. Yet the Cube delivered a quiet and resilient ride while gathering shout-outs and thumbs-ups from curious locals.

Look: I know the Cube isn’t for everyone. Like Mercedes-Benz’s Smart Fortwo, many car buyers won’t have the courage to drive in such a paparazzi-friendly form.

But with some economists predicting $200 for a barrel of oil by 2012 (more than $2 per litre at the pump), an overly roomy, five-passenger family box that gets twice the mileage of today’s minivans is going to make a lot of sense to more car buyers than just hormone-juiced youngsters looking for a private place.

Nissan can’t help you out with the death or taxes thing.

But trust me, when we’re all looking back nostalgically to the days when a litre of gasoline was only $1.20, small-but-roomy vehicles like the Cube will be more the norm than a curiosity.

Freelance reviewer John LeBlanc can be reached at editors@straight-six.com

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