Editor's note: This review was written in June 2010 about the 2010 Nissan Cube. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
For 2010, Nissan has added another trim level to the boxy Cube, the Krom (with a long O, pronounced "chrome"). The Cube is otherwise unchanged for 2010 (see them compared), and Kelsey Mays' 2009 Cube review details the lineup well. I'll concentrate on the new Krom.
In short, the Krom turns the affordable Cube into a more distinctive and definitively less affordable Cube, whose higher price I suspect will turn off many, many buyers. It also has a dorky name. Chrome with a K? It's no better than the Kia Forte Koup (coupe). Why do automakers do this?
At $20,440, the Krom adds a whopping $6,450 over the suggested retail price of the base Cube 1.8. Perhaps more relevant, it's $2,990 more expensive than the closest trim level, the 1.8 SL. Here's what it gets you: The bumpers are more prominent, adding almost an inch to the car's length, and the grilles are chrome. Sill extensions give the Krom a lowered look, and the 16-inch alloy wheels are specific to the trim level, being — you guessed it — chromed. (The SL also has 16-inch alloys, but they aren't chromed.) The Krom also has a spoiler atop its rear swing gate.
The interior has exclusive black and gray seat fabric, aluminum pedals and titanium-tone trim around the vents and gear selector. The Krom is also the only version to get steering-wheel stereo controls. Standard features that are optional on the 1.8 SL include a backup camera, which employs a small display in the dashboard, and keyless access.
The Krom is as much an enigma as the regular Cube, if not more so. I don't know if it's their styling that makes the Cube's boxy-car competitors more universally appealing, or the fact that the Scion xB has been around longer and has become old hat. See how the Cube, xB and Kia Soul fared in our Cars.comparison of 2009 models.
I remember finding our 2009 Cube 1.8 S' driver's seat rather uncomfortable. The 2010's seemed better, though it doesn't appear to be different, aside from the fabric. Another editor, who took the Krom on a longer trip, was unimpressed: What was soft on a short drive translated to unsupportive over the long haul. As before, front passengers wanted an inboard armrest; only the driver's seat has one.
The Cube has an edge over the xB and Soul in one comfort aspect: ride quality. It soaks up bumps well, which gives it another advantage on pockmarked city streets. Likewise, even though the Krom is almost an inch longer than other Cubes, it's 4 inches shorter than the Soul and roughly 10 inches shorter than the xB, which makes it good for small urban parking spaces. The turning diameter is 33.4 feet, tighter than the Soul and xB, both of which are more than 34 feet.
I have no reason to believe the Cube is unstable, and it has a standard electronic stability system, but it does feel more top-heavy than the other boxes — and definitely more so than conventional cars. It's also more susceptible to crosswinds, as I learned on a gusty day of highway driving.
The Cube is modestly powered, and our car's continuously variable automatic transmission cost us a little off-the-line acceleration compared with last year's six-speed manual. It also seemed slower than it actually was. Though Nissan's CVTs are among the best-executed on the market, they characteristically let the engine rev up to high rpm, often at unexpected times, which gives the impression of straining. In truth, it's just finding the most powerful and/or efficient combination of engine speed and gear ratio.
It pays off. The CVT is rated 27/31 mpg city/highway, and the manual gets an estimated 25/30 mpg. This beats the xB (22/28) and the Soul's smaller engine (26/31). Of the three, the Soul gives the most options, challenging the Cube with its smaller engine and the xB with its more powerful one (24/30).
A Cube With a View
The Cube is a few inches narrower than its boxy competitors, but it has plenty of headroom. Proving again that dimensions don't tell the whole story, the Cube's front seat could use a little more legroom for tall drivers, despite a slight advantage by the numbers alone. On the flipside, the backseat specs show a 2- to 3-inch legroom deficit, but sliding the seat back on its track gave me enough legroom, and the 60/40-split backrests have a generous amount of recline.
No matter where you sit, the tall windows and narrow pillars make for an open feeling and good visibility. The Krom's standard backup camera is a big plus.
In terms of cargo-carrying, the Cube has pros and cons. The pros include a maximum cargo volume of 58.1 cubic feet — which is larger than the Soul's (53.4 cubic feet) but smaller than the xB's (69.9 cubic feet). One of the cons is that its cargo volume behind the backseat is roughly half that of the other two models, at 11.4 cubic feet. A backseat that slides fore and aft definitely lends versatility, though. The final shortfall is a rear swing gate in lieu of a conventional liftgate. It requires more clearance behind the vehicle, so backing too close to a wall or a parked car can pose a problem.
For what it's worth, things could be worse. Historically, Japanese imports with swing gates have typically opened toward the curb, forcing you to load cargo from the street. The Cube's opens toward the street.
From Quirky to Bizarre
A Cube review wouldn't be complete without mention of its quirky and optionally bizarre features. The water-droplet ceiling and overall design are generally well-received, though the materials quality seldom impresses. (In fact, all three of the boxy cars mentioned seem a step behind the more traditional economy cars introduced recently.)
The strangest car feature of the millennium, though, must be the Cube's "shag dash topper," which is basically a 1-foot-diameter shag rug on top of your dash. "Topper" is another name for "toupee," and it fits. This tuft of '70s-era carpet might seem a good place to throw your cellular phone or sunglasses, were it not for the warning label underneath the piece that warns you not to do such a thing, as distraction or injury might occur. Because I live in the fast lane (ask anyone), I tried it anyway, and my stuff slid all over the place. The toupee doesn't even do well what you think it should.
That means the toupee is there solely for the look. It must seem quirky and fun in Japan, whereas in this country it serves solely to entertain car reviewers and inspire mockery. Not since Honda's "The Fit is Go!" ad campaign has a Japanese automaker presented such a generous gift. The topper is to car reviewers what former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is to comedians: Fish in a barrel. The side of a barn. A deer in the headlights.
Another conundrum is the shelf built into the dashboard in front of the passenger, which seems another good place to, uh, shelve items. Once again, the very bossy owner's manual warns against it. For what it's worth, owner's manuals are always full of warnings about loose items on dashboards and inaptly named "parcel shelves." Then again, it's one thing to warn people not to loiter in a rockslide area and quite another to do so after building a bench there.
Fortunately the topper feature is an option, and, as toupees often are, it's a bad one. In 2010, it's perfectly acceptable to shave your dashboard and go au naturel. People will respect you for it. If Nissan introduces an optional dashboard comb-over, we might have to revoke their import license.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has designated the 2010 Nissan Cube a Top Safety Pick thanks to its top ratings of Good in all tests: frontal, side and rear impacts, and roof strength. Standard safety features include front, side and curtain airbags, plus antilock brakes with discs in front and drums in the rear. A stability system with traction control is also included.
Cube Krom in the Market
The Krom seems like a very expensive version of the Cube, and I wonder if it does enough to justify its higher price. Standard features that are optional on the next trim level down go for $1,600 there; that leaves $1,390 to cover what are mostly cosmetic changes. Nissan offers a slew of options in the form of dealer-installed accessories, including some things the Krom incorporates, such as a rear spoiler. My guess is that most aspiring Cubists would be happier getting a less-expensive trim level and decking it out to suit their taste. If they're desperate for a conversation piece, I suggest they forgo the $230 Interior Designer Package, which includes the shag dash topper, and throw a few bucks at a thrift-store wig instead. Save money on both the car and the hairpiece. I'm here to help.
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