Test Drive: Nifty Nissan Cube is far from square

As you scratch your head over the boxy Nissan Cube, on sale in the U.S. next month, it helps to know that the car is iconic at home in Japan.

It looks, feels and goes the way it does because those attributes have earned it applause in the years it's been sold in Japan.

The current version went on sale in Japan late last year as the third-generation Cube. This is the first time it's been sold outside Japan.

Honda's 2003 Element pioneered the tall box movement in the U.S. Then came two generations of Scion xB's. In February came Kia's Soul. And now, Cube.

You can argue others: Mini Cooper and Ford Flex are boxy, but not tall. Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR are tall(ish), but not really boxy. And so on.

As did Kia for Soul, Nissan used this city for Cube's debut to suggest it fits in a hip milieu.

Nissan would have you think of Cube as something other than a car. "When we talked to (potential) customers, they said, 'This is my social space.' They weren't concerned about 0-60 (acceleration times) or handling dynamics," says Larry Dominique, Nissan's product chief in the U.S.

To young technophiles in Cube's target group, Nissan will pitch it as a "mobile device" (think iPhone). To choose accessories will be to "set preferences." To hit the road with pals will be to "upload yourself and four buddies."

The anti-car message can't disguise the fact that Cube's a decent driver, with you-betcha brakes (even though the rears are drums), smooth steering, six-speed manual, passable handling, terrific low-speed maneuverability.

The four-cylinder engine was more refined than that of the Soul (Test Drive last week). The Cube's manual shifted reasonably well and its CVT automatic seemed a better match to the low-power engine than Soul's four-speed automatic. Cube's CVT gets up to 4 miles per gallon more than its manual.

But Cube was underpowered compared with Soul. While fine for traffic and flat highways, it gasped and protested like a doughnut addict when pushed. A 250-mile highway run from Orlando to Miami illustrated the comfort of a stretch-out interior. But it also emphasized the modest power. Floor-it-and-go was the only way to keep up.

Much of the drive was into a quartering headwind, which turned Cube into an airbrake, but even in calm areas, the pedal-to-the-metal drill was the same. It just took less time to get up to speed.

And speaking of wind, Cube dodged and bobbed like a johnboat crossing a warship's wake.

What are you gonna do, the Nissan guys shrugged. It's tall and boxy; of course it'll catch the wind. Seemed worse in that regard than the Soul.

Wind noise was dreadful in the preproduction test car. Fixed now, Nissan promised.

Sun visors were massive but positioned poorly and nearly useless. A sun-blind driver, one might suggest, is a safety concern.

Nissan's hardly alone. Even high-dollar German cars don't always supply proper visors.

But turn over the coin and look at the fun stuff.

•The styling is cartoonish, as if the body was melted onto the frame, dripping almost to the road. You might not like it, but you'll probably concede it's worth a grin — priceless these dire days.

•Passenger space, no surprise, is generous — a key advantage of a box. Though aimed at young buyers, Cube is roomy enough for their well-fed, well-spread elders.

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