2012 Nissan Cube Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 26, 2012

For those motivated by style and fashion—yet still needing a healthy dose of practicality—the Cube hits the right buttons; practical types might find it hard to get past some packaging issues, though.

The 2012 Nissan Cube remains a bit of an oddity in the U.S. market—not quite a van, but almost; not quite a crossover wagon, but almost; but through and through, a quirky vehicle that's unrivaled in style and packaging. 

Simply put, the Cube is a box on wheels, but the details really make the design. Its rounded corners can make the Cube's look seem a little appliance-like; then look closer at the asymmetry of its windows, and the flared sheetmetal for the wheel wells and rear fascia, and it gains a gravitas that the Scion xB lacks. Inside, the Cube's design sounds weird, with a "Casual Lounge" theme in the cabin that gives it the curves of a Jacuzzi tub—with a rounded, recessed instrument panel running through to the door panels and carving out areas for the front occupants, along with water-ripple styling cues that echo throughout.

Adequate but far from exciting is how we'd sum up the Cube's driving experience. With its 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, powering the front wheels, the Cube can move rapidly—especially at low city speeds—but especially with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), it can feel a little sluggish on the highway. The available six-speed manual gearbox has a nice linkage and tends to make the engine feel perkier, but a slow throttle calibration works against any quick-and-nimble impression. So do a very softly sprung suspension and extremely light steering feel. The Cube is also a bit susceptible to crosswinds, so we've found ourselves overcorrecting sometimes when thrown off course. The soft suspension is a smart setup for most city driving, as it soaks up jarring expansion strips and even modest potholes without drama.

Inside, the Cube is actually even more spacious for passengers than the exterior design suggests. Front seats are soft, wide, and supportive, and a step up from those offered in the Nissan Versa and Sentra models, while the bench in back can easily accommodate two tall adults and has a pull-down center armrest. In a pinch, three can fit across—though it's quite narrow—and the rear bench not only slides fore and aft but the backrest reclines somewhat (though not flat). The trade-off for the great back seat—and probably why it's so comfortable—is that it doesn't fold flat into the floor as in most other crossovers, hatches, and minivans. Cargo versatility is, in fact, a sore point, and it might be hard to get past why you can't easily fit that coffee table, or other boxy item, into the boxy vehicle.

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Ride quality and refinement are Cube strengths; it's quieter and more sophisticated-feeling than most shoppers in this price class will expect. Road noise is well muted, the engine is luxury-car smooth at idle, and while it's no surprise there's some wind noise, we didn't sense any of the boomy resonance that's common in other small-car models at high cruising speeds. And while short-wheelbase vehicles like this can be pitchy at highway speeds, this isn't the case here. About the only down side of the cabin is that up close, the materials and plastics can look a little cut-rate in places—around edges and such.

The 2012 Cube hasn't been tested by the federal government, but with a solid set of safety features and IIHS Top Safety Pick status, it's looking like one of the reasons to favor this vehicle over one of its rivals.

Value is another big plus. Considering the 2012 Nissan Cube will likely maintain its base price of about $15k, it's impressive that it includes air conditioning, keyless entry, full power accessories, and an auxiliary audio input, all standard. Moving up to S models gets you Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio controls, cruise control, and other upgrades, while the SL is the starting point for a loaded Cube. Fog lamps, rear parking sensors, XM Satellite Radio, a Clarion speaker upgrade, and a subwoofer are all part of an SL upgrade package, and the nav system is SD-card-based, with a five-inch color screen plus XM NavTraffic capability. And for the shopper wanting a more customized look, Nissan offers more than 40 dealer-installed accessories.

For 2012, in addition to five new exterior colors, the Intelligent Key entry system is newly standard on top SL models, and S and SL models get a passenger-seat armrest in addition to the driver's seat one. There's also a new package offered for the 1.8 S CVT model that adds navigation, the rearview monitor, Intelligent Key, Rockford Fosgate audio, and 15-inch alloy wheels. The Krom model has been discontinued.

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2012 Nissan Cube

Styling

The 2012 Nissan Cube is unapologetically eccentric in its styling, but surprisingly practical anyhow.

It's no shrinking violet, that's for sure. The 2012 Nissan Cube stands out even among the "small-box" vehicles with styling to make you take notice. But it hits the right buttons if you need a healthy dose of practicality with your automotive fashion and style. Competitors like the Scion xB and Kia Soul are small boxes too, but the Cube is by far the most unusual.

Looked at head-on, the 2012 Cube has a tough stance, with headlights set wide apart in a rounded snout and horizontal lines widening the grille opening. The designers call it "Bulldog in Sunglasses," picturesque if nothing else. Aside from the nose, the Cube is almost pure box, with vertical sides and rear, making it noticeable on the road and in parking lots. The side-hinged rear hatch has a bustle at the bottom that signals this is no ordinary small van. The tailgate opens to the left side, breaking a rear window line that curves uninterrupted and continuously around the right rear corner of the car and along the side to the pillar between front and rear doors. The windows are all framed with a bevel in the sheetmetal, and the middle side pillar tapers to highlight the effect.

Inside the Cube, the "Casual Lounge" theme layers the curves of a Jacuzzi tub over a surprisingly practical and functional layout. The instrument panel, rounded and recessed, wraps through into the door panels, with carve-outs for the front seat occupants and water-ripple lines everywhere. Trim pieces and other accents are oval shapes, and a depression in the center of the dash is designed to hold an optional piece of artificial grass--a feature probably found on no other vehicle today.

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2012 Nissan Cube

Performance

The 2012 Nissan Cube isn't sporty in the slightest, and not meant to be, but drives and rides adequately.

All 2012 Nissan Cube models feature a single engine choice, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder producing 122 horsepower that drives the front wheels. Buyers can opt for either a six-speed manual gearbox or Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT). Both options move the Cube along fairly quickly, but it's hardly a sports car to fling through corners, nor an explosively-accelerating muscle car. The driveability of Nissan's CVT continues to improve, and the company has largely eliminated the lurching feeling during moderate acceleration still found in other makers' CVTs. While the shift quality of the six-speed manual is pleasant, Nissan's electronic throttle mapping makes the engine slow to respond, discouraging any kind of spirited driving.

All the Cube's personality must have been focused on its styling, because it's surprisingly bland in on-road driving. It handles fine in regular daily driving, but while it's maneuverable, it's not all that nimble and the tall body leans and rolls a lot under hard cornering. The electric power steering is devoid of all road feel or feedback, and stays fingertip light not only at parking speeds but on highways too. Because the tall body is also susceptible to crosswinds, the light steering caused us to over-correct when we were pushed out of line.

The best duty for the Cube is in city driving, where its huge interior volume is practical and the soft suspension soaks up jarring potholes, broken roads, protruding grates, and all the rest of the big-city hazards that trip up small cars. On the highway, its acceleration is adequate, and it has enough power for passing on two-lane roads most of the time. The brakes are pleasantly firm, though one sign of cost-cutting to hit the $15,000 entry price is the presence of old-style drum brakes at the rear.

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2012 Nissan Cube

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Nissan Cube's refined, comfy interior is betrayed by sub-par materials, but looks nicer than the price would indicate.

Despite its mix of flat and curvaceous lines, the 2012 Nissan Cube has more space inside for people and their gear than you might think from looking at it. The seats up front are supportive and soft, much better than those in Nissan's other small-car offerings, the Versa and Sentra. The rear seats offer plenty of room for two tall adults, and folding up the pull-down center armrest will allow a third person in the rear--though likely not for long journeys. Unusually for this size of car, the Cube's rear seat slides back and forth and also reclines--though not all the way.

People get priority over cargo space, though. There's not that much space in the short load bay when the rear seat is up, and flipping down the rear seat-back doesn't help much, because the cargo floor inexcusably is neither flat nor continuous. Nissan gets high marks for providing many places throughout the cabin for smaller items: cubbies in the dashboard on either side of the steering wheel, door pockets, and cupholders both down low on the console and up high. One novel touch: bungee hooks on the side doors.

You'll be surprised how refined the Cube is to travel in, far above the norm for this price-sensitive class of car. It's quiet and feels sophisticated, with well-muted road noise. We sensed none of the boomy resonance that these small-box kinds of cars sometimes exhibit at speed. At idle, the engine is so smooth you likely won't sense it's switched on, and under acceleration, there's no vibration or roughness transmitted through the pedals, steering column, or floor. The ride is smooth and well-damped, soft but without the pitching that over-damped cars sometimes exhibit.

The remarkably low base price of the Cube has gone up for 2012--including destination, it's now $15,760 for the base 1.8 model--and examining the car shows how Nissan did it. Up close, some of the plastic trim panels and other materials just aren't that pleasant. The design flourishes go some way toward camouflaging it, but buyers will want to consider whether they can live with low-grade materials that betray the Cube's economy-car roots. It also exhibits noticeable wind noise at highway speeds, perhaps less surprising considering its bluff shape.

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2012 Nissan Cube

Safety

Top crash-test ratings and good safety features put the 2012 Nissan Cube on top of the subcompact safety list.

The 2012 Nissan Cube bundles top crash-test results with an extensive list of safety features, making it a standout subcompact in safety and clearly at the top of the list for bargain-priced cars.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) still hasn't tested the Nissan Cube, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Cube its top "Good" rating in every single category: frontal offset, side impact, rear crash protection, and roof strength. That makes it a Top Safety Pick, one of the few small cars to earn that designation. The NHTSA did give the Cube four stars out of five for rollover protection, though.

The 2012 Cube has all the features you'd expect, including electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist, front, side, and side-curtain airbags, and active head restraints, all standard. Outward visibility is good, especially over the driver's right shoulder, due to the wraparound window and thin pillar. The side mirrors are also large and very effective.

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2012 Nissan Cube

Features

The 2012 Nissan Cube is loaded with standard features, and appeals to a young buyer with lots of customization options.

For 2012, there are three trim levels offered for the Nissan Cube: 1.8, 1.8 S, and 1.8 SL. All models include air conditioning, power windows, remote keyless entry, a trip computer, and auxiliary input for the audio system as standard.

The 1.8 S adds cruise control plus a host of upgraded interior appointments, including a front passenger-seat armrest and other niceties like map lights. And the 1.8 SL model comes only with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) and adds automatic climate control, alloy wheels, an Intelligent Key system, and an upgraded sound system that includes iPod connectivity as standard.

Beyond those three levels, options are surprisingly limited. An options package added last year for the 1.8 S model fitted with the CVT includes a navigation system, a rear-view monitor, 15-inch alloy wheels, the intelligent key, and a Rockford Fosgate audio system. For the top-of-the-line SL model, the Preferred Package bundles push-button ignition, rear parking sensors, fog lamps, XM Satellite Radio, and (perhaps most attractive to younger buyers) better speakers--both a subwoofer and Clarion speakers for the rest of the car. Then there's a navigation system, which uses SD cards for map storage, that includes a 5-inch color screen, real-time traffic data, and a USB port.

The real secret to making a Cube distinctive comes from the Nissan dealer, who offers more than 40 different accessories for buyers to personalize their Cube after it's built. They range from custom wheels, decals, and other appearance options to more practical items like cargo organizers. 

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2012 Nissan Cube

Fuel Economy

The 2012 Nissan Cube delivers decent gas mileage, especially in the city; on the highway, its bluff lines betray it.

Perhaps due to its tall, blocky shape, the 2012 Nissan Cube gets unimpressive ratings for highway fuel efficiency, though its city figures are competitive. The EPA rates the Cube at 27 mpg city, 31 mpg highway with the CVT, for a combined rating of 28 mpg.

That's a much narrower spread between city and highway figures than in most vehicles, and if anything, those ratings may be a tad optimistic. In quite rapid stop-and-go driving over a short test loop, our drivers saw just 24 and 25 mpg in two different Cubes fitted with the CVT.

Specify the six-speed manual transmission, and the mileage drops to 25 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, giving a combined 27 mpg rating--pretty low for a subcompact, even one with as much interior volume as the Cube offers.

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7.6
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Styling 9
Performance 6
Comfort & Quality 7
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Features 8
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