Grown-ups bask in Cubes' youthful glow

Gary Musser of Las Vegas traded a Toyota Prius hybrid for his spanking new Nissan Cube, and loves to cruise the glittering Vegas Strip in the little boxy car he says is a "babe magnet."

Thing is, Musser's 71 and married. That means, for one thing, any magnetism is arm's-length. It also means car marketers might have shot wide of the mark with the newest small, tall boxes aimed to lure elusive young buyers.

Musser's outside the mainstream, but he's not as far afield as you might guess. Typical buyers of today's tall, boxy cars, not just Cube, are in their 40s, twice what you'd think from the cars' "hey, kids" marketing.

Starting with Honda's 2003 Element — Honda once touted it as "a dorm room on wheels" — through Toyota's 2004 Scion xB, the 2009 Cube and 2010 Kia Soul, automakers have been trying a formula popular in Japan for a decade or more: Draw youthful buyers with oddball, but eminently practical, cars that are pure rebellion against the swoop and slope that usually defines a sexy car.

Their roominess, cargo space and quirky looks may combine for "some staying power" in the market, says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at industry consultant AutoPacific. "Those boxes really do have body styles that are easy to live with, a level of practicality you just can't get" in other small vehicles.

What makes Soul, Cube, xB and Element stand out in the showroom is that they are so-called tall cars the industry mostly has resisted for the U.S. market, fearing they are out of sync with American tastes. While more traditional boxy cars that aren't tall, such as the Chrysler's PT Cruiser and BMW's Mini Cooper, have been successful, the move to overtly tall, boxy designs is a brave step.

Cube is riskiest currently because it's the most eccentric, Brinley says, but she expects it to hold steady at about 35,000 U.S. sales annually. It'll nose out Kia Soul's 30,000, she forecasts, because there are more Nissan dealers and Nissan is a better-known brand.

That sales level would be too low to support a vehicle on U.S. sales alone. But the tall cars don't need huge volume here to make it because they are sold in many countries or they share hardware with other vehicles their makers sell around the globe.

Expect more automakers to join the small parade of boxy cars in coming few years, "but it doesn't mean we'll see everyone offering three different sizes of this kind of vehicle," Brinley says.

Sure, they're cute, but they're useful, too

Long-term potential for Soul, Cube and other tall boxes will depend less on how cool they are than on how good they are as cars, says Karl Brauer, editor at car-research and shopping site Edmunds.com. "Cars that are dependent on being new and hip and cool have a short shelf life, almost like sports cars."

The tall boxes "have a 'cute' factor," he says, but "what will make them a failure or success is the quality of the overall vehicle, whether it's a well-designed and engineered, high-value vehicle."

An example, he says, is the retro-style PT Cruiser, around since 2000. "It was hugely successful initially not only because it had style and a low price, but it was a compelling argument — a lot of utility for a car that was pretty small. It had a longer-lasting appeal than it would have had just because of its style."

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