Versus the competiton:
Scion’s quasi-iconic xB has finally encountered some lookalikes in the 2010 Kia Soul and 2009 Nissan Cube. Both cars hit the market last spring. I’ve spent considerable time in all three, and am ready to call some results. The Cube is the best choice for the group’s advertised environment: Metropolis. But few drivers rack up all of their miles in urban areas, and for shoppers who want their vehicle to meet a wider set of needs, Nissan’s box-car turns out to be a lot less viable.
The Cube comes in four trim levels: 1.8, 1.8 S, 1.8 SL and the tricked-out Krom (“Chrome”) edition. Nissan offers manual or automatic transmissions, but the 1.8 SL and Krom come only with automatics. I drove a stick-shift Cube 1.8 S. Compare the four trims here.
Nissan says the Cube’s styling was inspired by a bulldog. It resembles an “incognito canine,” the automaker says, likening the dark headlights and black grille to Fido’s eyes and schnoz. The oversized side mirrors are his ears. When Nissan introduced the Cube at last fall’s L.A. auto show, I thought the design worked.
Now, not so much. In the big city, the Cube is no puppy; it’s more of a runt. One Cars.com editor after another found the sheet metal just plain odd. A friend of mine called it “pretty ridiculous,” and my girlfriend said she’d rather walk than be seen in the thing. (Granted, she’s dating me, so her taste is clearly questionable.) I might charitably call the Cube more controversial than ugly — think BMW 7 Series, not Pontiac Aztek — and at the L.A. show, I witnessed a twentysomething spectator promptly fall in love with it. If you’re a fan, drop me an email explaining why. Far too many onlookers said otherwise.
The Cube’s small size has something going for it. It’s 5 inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the Soul and 10 inches shorter than the xB, making it the easiest to shoehorn into a parallel-parking spot. And with the group’s shortest wheelbase, it also has the smallest turning circle: a city-friendly 33.4 feet — 1 foot tighter than the next-best Soul.
Wheel choices start with 15-inch steel wheels and plastic covers; the 1.8 SL and Krom get 16-inch alloys. Like its competitors, the Cube can be had with more than a dozen exterior accessories — from body kits and custom grilles to roof spoilers and chrome side mirrors. The Krom comes with its own custom bodywork.
Nissan says it wanted to make the Cube’s cabin feel like a “casual lounge.” (When, pray tell, is a lounge not casual?) True to form, my test car’s off-white cabin had the modish feel of a California design student’s dorm room. The seats have fuzzy cloth upholstery and gobs of cushioning, and the cream-colored panels in my test car had appealing, if unpadded, textures. The cupholders, door speakers and headliner have concentric wave moldings that Nissan says were inspired by water droplets. Cabin quality isn’t always consistent — the chrome door handles and Infiniti-grade turn-signal stalks contrast with exposed screw heads and rudimentary center controls — but the sum of it all makes the Cube seem higher-rent inside than either the xB or the Soul.
Problem is, all this is the case only when you’re parked. Start driving, and you’ll soon find that this dorm room sits right atop the San Andreas fault. Even around modest corners, I had to brace myself against the driver’s armrest to keep from sliding one way or another — the chairs are just that flat. Any items on the shallow shelf atop the glove compartment fly right off, as do things on the central dash-top cutout. Nissan says both were designed to hold items only when the car is stopped. Useful, no?
The front seats have wide backrests, and even tall adults will have no issues with headroom. The gearshift mounts near the floor, opening up enough space for your knees to spill out — something neither the xB nor the Soul allows. (The location doesn’t fall naturally to hand, though; it’s less of an issue if you get the automatic.)
The rear seats recline and adjust forward and backward — both the xB’s and Soul’s are fixed — and with them all the way back, adults should have ample legroom. There’s also a folding center armrest with integrated cupholders; that’s a feature neither competitor offers. Still, the seat sits an inch or two too low to the floor, robbing you of much-needed thigh support. The xB’s backseat does the same, but the Soul’s is better. (If you want a full comparison of all interior aspects, click here.)
Given that all three cars are space-efficient, the Cube’s smallest-in-group exterior size has to hurt something. It does — the cargo space. Nissan says volume behind the second row totals just 11.4 cubic feet; that’s about half of what Scion says the xB offers. Numbers can only say so much, but for a hatchback, the Cube’s trunk area feels just plain small. The rear seats scoot forward a few inches to expand it, but in the forward position anyone approaching 6 feet tall will find legroom untenable. Fold the seats down, and total volume equals 58.1 cubic feet. That’s better than the Soul’s 53.4 cubic feet, but it trails the xB’s 69.9.
| Cargo Volume Compared (cu. ft.)
| Behind rear seat
| Rear seats folded
Fold the seats, and there’s a hefty step up from the cargo floor to the lowered seatbacks; the xB and Soul have a flatter transition between their cargo floors and seatbacks. The Cube I tested had an optional cargo organizer to fill in the area and create a flat load floor, but the resulting surface was angled rearward. That means any round items — watermelons, basketballs — could end up on the pavement when you open the door.
More troublesome is Nissan’s decision to use a swing gate rather than a liftgate. Some will find it easier to shut than a conventional pull-down liftgate, but others will call the feature a deal-breaker. Parallel park in close quarters, and it’s nearly impossible to open the swing-gate more than a few degrees. Unless you’re in front of a tall truck, liftgates can typically be opened with only a little clearance.
The Cube’s four-cylinder engine offers up modest power at best, and it emits a muffled roar when pushed hard. There’s little fun to be had at higher revs, which might have sufficed a decade ago. Today, though, even the least expensive cars can feel energetic in certain conditions, and the Cube rarely does. I found it markedly weaker than the xB and the Soul — though I should mention we haven’t tested the Soul’s base trim level, which has a smaller engine than other trims.
Interestingly, when I piled a couple of passengers into the Cube the extra weight didn’t make it feel any less energetic. That isn’t saying much, of course. Get used to downshifting if you want to pass anyone on the highway — and to making a fair number of steering corrections, too. Of these three cars, the Cube seems the most vulnerable to crosswinds.
My tester’s six-speed manual transmission had precise gates but longish throws; it’s mounted too close to the floor, which isn’t the most ergonomic location, especially compared with the Soul’s and xB’s console-mounted shifters. (The xB’s is practically on the dashboard, but it works in spite of that.) The clutch, on the other hand, is light and pretty forgiving, which makes the Cube a compelling choice among new cars for teaching a teen to drive stick. (Your run-of-the-mill used clunker, of course, is still eminently better.)
A continuously variable automatic transmission is optional on the 1.8 S and standard on the 1.8 SL and Krom. (The 1.8 comes only as a stick shift.) CVT models are EPA-rated at 28/30 mpg city/highway, which is both impressive and unusual: In non-hybrids, the variance between city and highway mileage is typically far greater. Nissan says it tuned the CVT specifically for these results. Either way, it’s significantly better than the stick shift’s 24/29 mpg.
| EPA Gas Mileage Compared
| Manual transmission
| Automatic transmission
It’s easy to see why the Cube is better suited for the urban jungle: A quiet cabin and decent ride quality are its strengths; spirited handling is not. The suspension eats up manhole covers and potholes with aplomb similar to the xB’s. The Soul feels firmer, as do hatchbacks like the Honda Fit. The Cube’s easygoing character also comes across in its steering: It turns with a light touch and unwinds to 12 o’clock in a natural, satisfying fashion.
Push the car harder, though, and it’s too soft to really enjoy. Steering precision trails the xB and Soul, and there’s a lot of body roll. The brake pedal brings the car to a halt decisively — not what I’d expected, given the low-tech drum brakes in back. It’s far better than the xB’s mushy pedal response — and that car has all-disc brakes — but I did notice a lot of nosedive under heavy braking in the Cube. Antilock brakes are standard.
The Cube has yet to be tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system; click here for the full list. The Soul and xB have similar features, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another $14,000 car with antilock brakes and a stability system standard. On this front, I’m impressed with all three of these cars.
The Cube 1.8 starts at $13,990, which is $690 more than the base Soul but $1,760 less than the xB. Standard features include remote keyless entry — it’s optional on the Soul — plus power windows and locks, air conditioning, and a two-speaker CD stereo with an MP3 jack. The xB and Soul include standard USB/iPod inputs, which offer better integration for music players than the Cube’s basic jack.
The 1.8 S starts at $14,690 and adds a four-speaker stereo, cruise control and a few other convenience features. The CVT automatic runs $1,000. The 1.8 SL ($16,790) includes the CVT standard; it also gets alloy wheels, automatic climate control and a six-speaker stereo with — finally! — a USB/iPod input. A Rockford Fosgate stereo with steering-wheel audio controls is optional. The tricked-out Cube Krom, which includes all these features, runs $19,370.
Nissan wins the oddball award, even among kooky-looking box-cars, and 28 mpg in the city is impressive. But even urban driving requires an occasional jaunt on the highway — or a road trip to see the ‘rents — and here the Cube suffers, especially compared with the more substantial-feeling xB.
Another observation: Value and funky styling aside, these econoboxes give something up compared with what the same money will buy in a more conventional — if slightly pricier — car. Consider your alternatives if you’re shopping one of these boxes, because the quality and refinement that’s baked into $17,000 sedans like the Honda Civic, Kia Forte and Mazda3 will have you thinking twice about the Soul, xB and Cube. If car shoppers continue to crave value, these cars have robust futures. But low prices can only do so much; quality matters, too, and in the long run, I suspect all three boxes will have to make significant strides to stay competitive.