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.

•Cargo space is ample, too, surprising in such a small car. (Soul's a few inches bigger.) A deep well behind the rear seat contributes a lot of stuff space. You can slide the back seat among three set positions to mix and match people and cargo room.

•Visibility is good and the turning circle is very tight, attributes meant to attract young, nervous drivers Nissan thinks are its target. It's aggravating that all cars aren't so-designed.

•Options are plentiful, including a circle of shag carpeting atop the center of the dashboard. To keep your cellphone or MP3 player from sliding around? "It doesn't actually do anything," says Patrick Steiner, in charge of accessories. Of course.

The package that lets you choose among 20 hues for the interior lighting at least looks cool. And the bungees keep your miscellany snugged firm.

•Interior has a fanciful tone but not at the expense of good execution. Things fit together well and mainly are pleasant to operate. You wonder on some things, though. The headliner is wrinkled, to look as if ripples are spreading from the dome light. Just looks like a faulty headliner.

Nissan shouldn't be so quick to downplay Cube's car-ness. For low-demand drivers, it's dandy. And, in an almost impossible compromise, it also appears likely to satisfy people who don't really want cars.

About the 2009 Nissan Cube

• When? On sale May 5.

• Where? Made at Oppama, Japan.

• Why? Attract young buyers.

• How? Put box atop a Versa chassis.

• How much? Starts at $14,385, including $695 shipping. Krôm is $20,065.

• Who? Target is age 25, makes $25,000 a year, parents help buy.

• How potent? Who cares? Not Cube buyers, Nissan figures. For the record: 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated 122 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 127 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Six-speed manual standard. Continuously variable ratio (CVT) automatic optional. (Comparison: Most rival Kia Souls have 2-liter four rated 142 hp, 137 lbs.-ft.)

• How lavish? Impressive safety gear for a low-end model: full array of air bags, anti-lock brakes with brake assist and brake-force distribution, stability and traction controls.

• How big? About 4 inches shorter, narrower than Kia Soul: 157.5 inches long, 66.7 in. wide, 65 in. tall, 99.6-in. wheelbase. Weighs 2,762 to 2,864 lbs. Cargo space is listed as 11.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat, 58.1 cu. ft. with seat folded.

Turning diameter is a tight 33.4 ft.

• How thirsty? CVT is rated 28 mpg in town, 30 mpg highway, 29 combined (3.45 gallons per 100 miles). Manual: 24/29/26. Trip computer in preproduction CVT tester: 24.2 mpg in highway driving (4.13 gal./100 mi.) in stiff wind.

Uses regular; holds 13.2 gallons.

• Overall:A hoot for those who aren't car buffs.