Designing a car involves hundreds of hours of wind-tunnel analysis as engineers, making sometimes extraordinarily fine submillimeter adjustments, chase down excess drag, wind noise and lift. The process is tedious but there is a certain beauty to it, as the car's exterior is gradually brought into harmony with properties of nature. • And then there's the air-hating box of ugly, the 2009 Nissan Cube.
The Cube is to aerodynamics what a collapsing bridge is to Olympic diving, what slipping on an icy sidewalk is to Swan Lake. It's a travesty, a mockery. Nissan Motor Co. says the design was inspired by a "bulldog in sunglasses." My question: Which end is wearing the sunglasses?
Of course, it's not supposed to be beautiful, if by "beautiful" you mean sleek, porpoiselike. That's a very geezerly car aesthetic that doesn't resonate with a lot of young people. For "echo boomers" and "millennials" born from 1980 to 1990, beautiful is counterintuitively clumsy, affectedly unsleek and modular, as in Wii consoles, iPhones and the large, squarish heads of the Jonas Brothers. It's no accident that Nissan has tagged the Cube its "mobile device."
To bring you up to speed: The Cube is a huge hit in Japan, and now Nissan has homologated it for the North American market. Built on Nissan's B-platform chassis (used in the Versa and Sentra), the Cube is nicely equipped for $13,990, including stability control.
Why is stability control important? Because the Cube is aimed at relatively inexperienced drivers, those 18 to 25 years old. I would never let my new driver on the road without stability control. Seriously.
What's fascinating to me is the psychographic opportunity Nissan thinks it has identified. The reasoning is that many of the intended buyers — or drivers — will still be living at home with one or both parents. Nissan proposes the Cube as their home away from home, their own loungelike space to hang out with friends and generally establish a base camp on the road to adulthood.
I get it. The Cube's interior — the faraway windshield, the airy cabin and towering headroom — is more studio loft than economy car. There are trays and flat surfaces carved into the doors and dash, places to throw stuff. There are bungee straps built into the doors to hold things such as pens, iPods, sandals.
You might think all the headroom would go to waste — I could wear a large raccoon on my head while driving, no problem. But with the open space, people in the back can comfortably carry on a conversation with people in the front without feeling like they're breathing down their necks. So the car is uniquely social, which is how the kids like their media, too.
Cargo space with the rear seat down is a utilitarian 56 cubic feet. And the smoked-out rear passenger and back windows provide a serious amount of privacy. Uh-oh.
The Cube has some design grace notes. You will appreciate the rock-in-a-pond ripple motif in the cup holders, speakers and, most notably, the headliner. Also notable is the side-hinged rear hatch and the asymmetric wraparound rear window. All very cool.
The previous champion of boxiness, the Scion xB, demonstrated that as youth-oriented and Japan-chic as these square vehicles are, older consumers liked them, too. If Dad is making the payments, is Junior going to deny him the keys?
How does the Cube drive?
It's okay. The automatic transmission SL was competently quick and effortless to drive with solid brakes, comfortable ride and tight turning radius, making it super easy to park.
With a little more money, kids can step up to the Krom package (pronounced "chrome"), with 16-inch alloy wheels, a thumping six-speaker stereo with iPod interface, tastier upholstery and interior lighting. At less than $20,000, the Cube Krom seems like a genuinely decent value.
With high style and an even higher coefficient of drag, the Cube seems to have what it takes to captivate the living-in-the-parents'-basement set. How far it will reach beyond that demographic, I'm not sure.