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."

In a recession when nothing's a hot seller, it's hard to declare new Soul and Cube winners or losers. They are selling at a faster monthly pace than the boxy-car pioneers, xB and Element, but that could be just because they're newer.

Element's not been overhauled since its launch. The xB's radical overhaul for the '07 model is 3 years old now. In a U.S. new vehicle market down 27.9% through August this year, Element's sales are off 48.1% and xB's are down 46.7%.

Rethinking brand loyalty

The tall boxes come as car companies are questioning old assumptions about how to attract and retain buyers. They've believed that they must bring in youngsters via inexpensive, cool cars, then keep them and move them up to bigger, more-profitable vehicles as they age.

Baby Boomers succumbed, as their parents and grandparents had — commute to your first job in a General MotorsChevrolet, retire in a GM Cadillac.

But that doesn't resonate now. In fact, Nissan thinks young buyers today are so non-car-oriented that it uses computer-speak to market Cube. It's not a car, it's a "mobile device" like an iPhone. Buyers don't choose accessories, they "set preferences."

When Nissan surveyed potential buyers, "They said, 'This is my social space,' " recounts Larry Dominique, Nissan's product chief in the U.S. No mention of handling, acceleration or other car stuff.

Automakers also don't think attracting middle-aged buyers means they goofed with the boxy cars.

Honda Element's "original design-target buyer was a younger male with an active lifestyle. We did get some of those buyers, including surfers and college-age people. But we never expected them to represent the 'average buyer,' considering that most car sales in the U.S. are to people over 40 years old," Honda spokesman Chris Martin says.

Brinley says AutoPacific's data show the average new car buyer is 56. "Younger people don't have the money." Nissan calls the age gap between target and actual Cube buyers "expected."

More important for carmakers is that box buyers of any age often are first-timers for the brand. Scion emphasizes that 75% of xB buyers are new to Toyota's family of brands.

The trick could be converting box buyers into brand loyalists. What's next after a fling with the feisty Scion xB — a Camry? After a cartoonish Nissan Cube, is there an Altima down the road?

Of course, they might just come back for another tall box. Musser, probably younger-at-heart than many of Cube's college-age target buyers, says he's green-conscious, but sacrificed the fuel economy of his 2007 Prius "to put more fun into my life."

Cube, he's certain, is the "shape and size of cars to come."