By Kelsey Mays on December 1, 2008
If you kept up with our coverage of the L.A. auto show or were there yourself, you no doubt noticed a couple new boxy cars — the 2009 Nissan Cube and 2010 Kia Soul — vying for the sort of Gen-Y attention Scion achieves. Both employ left-field styling, near-infinite customization options, splashy marketing hype and frugal drivetrains — a combination some analysts have said bodes well for the uncertain financial times ahead.
Over at Scion’s booth was a 2009 xB. We’ve spent considerable time in that car, but not alongside its latest competitors, so we climbed around all three back-to-back for an impromptu comparison. These being show cars, we presume most cosmetic issues — like how well the buttons fit — will be smoothed out by production time. That still leaves plenty of room to rate other areas, from styling and seating comfort to cargo room and overall value. We came up with eight off-the-cuff categories to name an initial winner.
Read on for our thoughts, and add your own in the comments section.
Not long after Nissan introduced the Cube, a twentysomething woman crooned from the driver’s seat: “Everything is round! So adorable. I like it.” We aren’t quite as smitten, but the Cube definitely takes the most risks — from the wraparound rear window to the circular climate controls and uber-plush seats — and, save the awful swing-out tailgate, we think it pulls most of them off.
The Soul is the most conventional-looking of the three, with a slicked-back windshield and modest roofline. The nose is a bizarre amalgamation of bug-eyed lights and plastic inserts, but the tail brings everything together nicely. Inside, the dash is attractive, if conventional. In the weird wars, it looks like Kia played it safe.
Novelty counts for something, and the xB’s is starting to wear off. It’s still kooky as ever, but compared to the ever-adventurous Cube and cleverly packaged Soul, the xB manages to look awkward and … well, ordinary.
The Driver’s Seat
The Cube on the show floor had Nissan’s “Wall Gray” interior with suede-like seats — they’re optional — but those seats were easily the most comfortable in the group, with wide backrests and ample cushioning. Drivers get an armrest, and there’s no center tunnel to cramp legroom, so your knees have space to spill out.
The xB’s seats feel cushier than the Soul’s, but the upholstery doesn’t have the premium feel of Nissan’s. There isn’t a full center tunnel obstructing knee room, but a chunk of the dash housing the gearshift encroaches a bit. Scion’s woven upholstery seems ready for the most serious punishment. The driver’s seat has an armrest.
The Soul’s woven cloth upholstery feels the least accommodating. The seatbacks are stiff and uncompromising, and a center tunnel running the length of the front seats cramps inboard knee room. Also, none of the Souls we checked out had an armrest for the driver.
With tall windows and narrow pillars, the Cube has the sightlines of a gondola. Our only beef concerns the six-o’clock view. The rear window is closer than in the other cars, so it seems larger, but it’s also quite obstructed: The rear head restraints stick up from the seats, and the center seat belt reaches up to an anchor point high in the D-pillar. The side mirrors are reasonably sized but a bit far away.
The Soul’s driving position feels more carlike than the other two. The windshield angles toward you, and the A-pillars aren’t radically far away. The D-pillars are hefty, though, and the side windows taper off leading up to them. The third-quarter windows are useless, so there’s quite a blind spot, but the large side mirrors mitigate this somewhat. The view out the rear is the clearest in the group, with a center seat belt anchored in the seat and curl-over head restraints nested out of the way in the seatback.
The xB’s windows and roofline remain upright, offering excellent visibility — until you turn around. There are massive D-pillars at four and eight o’clock, and the large rear head restraints sit somewhat high. The side mirrors seem small and distant compared to those in the Soul and Cube. At least Scion, like Kia, mounts the center seat belt on the backseat.
Cabin Quality and Conveniences
The Cube on display at the show felt high-rent for an economy car, with touches like chrome door handles, low-gloss plastics and an upscale cloth headliner. The radio dials feel unremarkable, but the climate controls are decent quality — and options like automatic climate control and keyless access with push-button start stand out in this field. Unfortunately, a USB/iPod jack — a must-have for any Gen-Y vehicle – is optional. The others include it standard.
Count on Kia to include no-nonsense features like extending sun visors and a sunglass holder – things every car ought to have, yet neither competitor does. Dashboard quality rivals the xB’s, with textured plastics available in umpteen colors. The stereo controls are run-of-the-mill, but the A/C knobs have Honda-like levels of precision. Alas, the headliner is cheap mouse-fur, and the overhead grab handles lack the soft-close feature that’s nearly ubiquitous these days.
The xB’s matte-finish dashboard has tight panel fittings and low-gloss textures. Unfortunately it’s also the most basic, with cheap silver plastic sheathing and crude A/C dials. The headliner material is in a race for the bottom with Kia, and most of the materials are black, giving the dash a dungeon-like atmosphere. Um … woot?
The rear seats could sit an inch or so higher for better thigh support, but all-around visibility is excellent. Legroom and headroom are endless, and there’s no floor hump to cramp the footwells. The show car had a folding armrest with cupholders, something neither competitor offers. Kudos to Nissan for having a backseat that slides fore/aft and reclines — and there’s quite a bit of range for both operations.
The xB has under-seat cargo shelves — kind of cool — but the seat isn’t adjustable. Legroom is the best of the group, with no center floor hump, and headroom is similarly abundant. There isn’t a center armrest, and the claw-style plastic cupholders back there are a joke. Like in the Cube, the seats could sit a bit higher.
The tall rear bench offers the best thigh support of this group, but there’s a modest hump in the center, and legroom doesn’t feel as generous as it does in the Cube and xB. Headroom is abundant, but the rear seat is neither adjustable nor armrest-equipped.
The xB has a massive cargo opening with probably the lowest load height, and the seats fold down easily enough. The cargo area seems deeper than that of the Cube or the Soul – neither competitor has released cargo volume specs yet – and, when folded, the seats leave a gap-free cargo floor. There’s a compartment under the load floor in which you can throw a few things, too.
The cargo area has a manageable load height, and the seatbacks fall easily for a flat, gap-free floor. They feel like the heaviest to lift back up, though, and the liftgate opening isn’t as large as Scion’s. Overall cargo depth seems midway between the Cube and xB, though the Soul’s under-floor compartment is larger than the xB’s.
If Nissan is marketing the Cube as an urban runabout, the swing-out tailgate is a deal-breaker. It requires an extra 4 or 5 feet behind the car to swing completely open; the others have a tailgate that requires perhaps 2 feet of clearance, something parallel parkers will appreciate. The whole cargo area is a bit shallow, and the load floor is hardly flat; it drops down nearly a foot after the liftover area, and there’s another ledge when the rear seats are folded. It does allow for taller cargo than the xB or Cube, however, and the 60/40-split seats are spring-loaded to fall on their own when you pull a cord. Neither competitor has that feature.
Kia says the Soul’s two engines — a 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter four-banger — will achieve 30-plus mpg, though official EPA estimates are pending. The 1.6-liter Rio, which shares platform elements with the Soul, achieves up to 35 mpg highway.
The Cube’s standard 1.8-liter engine should get 30-plus mpg, Nissan says. Like the Soul, no EPA estimates have been released, but the 1.8-liter Versa, which shares a platform with the Cube, gets up to 33 mpg highway.
The xB’s 2.4-liter engine is muscular but thirsty, achieving just 28 mpg highway with either a manual or automatic.
Though prices are still pending, Nissan general manager Al Castignetti told Automotive News that the Cube will be priced almost identically to the Versa, though there won’t be a stripped-down base model like the latter car offers. That means prices could start in the low teens and top out around $20,000. Considering the litany of standard features — including high-value items like stability control, six airbags, power windows and A/C — the Cube could have a significant, um, edge.
Like Nissan, Kia has yet to release pricing. Spokeswoman Beverly Braga said prices should start in the “good” teens — do we hear 13 or 14? — and remain competitive with the others. Add to that Kia’s 10-year powertrain warranty and we’re confident the Soul will represent solid value. So why did it lose to the Cube? Because stripped-down trim levels forego things like stability control, ABS and A/C. Product planner Fred Aikens said “close to zero” percent of buyers will actually purchase those trims — meaning they likely exist only so Kia can advertise a bargain-basement starting price — but in the quest for total value, Kia may cede some ground to Nissan.
The xB starts quite well-equipped, but it also runs close to $16,000 — steep territory in this class. Though it can come with no shortage of dealer accessories, it lacks some of the high-value options, like a sunroof or push-button start, offered elsewhere.
And the Winner Is…
The Nissan Cube
Oh, the irony. At last week’s show, the Cube’s swing-gate became the subject of frequent criticism among Cars.com staffers. Some of us discounted the car as a whole because of the ill-advised feature. Yet when we added all the categories up, the Cube won six out of eight. It’s certainly the most upscale of the three cars — though our only example to check out was one very well-equipped show car — and its asymmetrical styling outdoes an already over-the-top segment. Naturally, full rankings depend on actually driving these boxes, but at first blush, Nissan gets the nod from us.
Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey