Man in the Box: Driving the 2008 Nissan Cube

Click above for a high-res gallery of the Japan-spec 2008 Nissan Cube

The Nissan Cube is coming to the U.S. next Spring, and we'll get our first look at the U.S.-spec car when it makes its debut at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show. I recently had the opportunity to drive a Japanese-market edition for four days, and it's a very neat little car. Driving the JDM vehicle also illustrates how differently small Japanese cars are set up depending on their target market. Is the Cube an economy car? In Japan, it would certainly qualify, boasting a fuel economy rating of 16 km/l (some 37 mpg U.S.) according to the country's 10-15 mode test cycle. That's basically the combined cycle, and the test is done at low speeds. For Japan, where there's plenty of urban driving and road congestion, it probably serves as a fair indicator of what drivers will experience. For us, not so much. Read on after the jump.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

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The tester had a 1.4L four rated at 95 horses connected to a 4-speed automatic transmission. (A 1.5L with a CVT is also available in the car's home market.) Our Cube also had e-4WD, an ingenious system that puts an electric motor on the rear axle that, when the system is active, will drive the rear wheels if additional traction is needed. The system itself can be turned on and off via a switch on the instrument panel. This approach saves weight and ensures that the Cube can keep a flat floor in the passenger and cargo areas. As I mention in the full review at Autoblog, the weather never presented a scenario where I would have benefited from turning on the e-4WD.

The Cube's final drive ratio with this particular powertrain is 4.072, clearly indicating that it's optimized for local/urban duty. In that role, it excels, accelerating briskly to around-town speeds and cruising without taxing the little four-banger underhood. Bringing it on American highways is antithetical to this role, putting a definite strain on the engine, which has to maintain steady revs in anywhere from 3,000 rpm to over 4,000 rpm to keep pace with traffic moving between 55 and 70 mph. Fuel economy takes a substantial hit as a result. As such, after four days of mixed driving, including my highway commute to work, I managed to squeeze only 22 mpg out of the engine.

And that's okay. Like I said, the JDM-spec Cube is not at all optimized for USDM-spec duty. We use our cars differently, and that's reflected in how they're equipped and tuned for our market's demands. If I had stayed local, avoiding the highway, the Cube would have clearly done better. Probably a lot better. And the eventual U.S.-market version will, too. It'll probably have some more power and better gearing (probably a CVT), and I'd hazard that we'll see an EPA fuel economy rating in the vein of the Nissan Sentra or Versa. Those numbers, incidentally, are in the same general neighborhood as what was achievable in the original Scion xB. The Cube has the same funky, import-cool vibe as Toyota's original boxy import -- something the new xB lost a bit (along with some fuel economy) when it grew from its Yaris-sourced underpinnings to the larger Corolla-based vehicle it is now.

The Cube, assuming the next car's design retains the current car's stylish charm and practicality, should be a success. If Nissan plans on selling the next-gen car in Europe, perhaps a clean, efficient diesel could enter the powertrain mix, too. Finally, if we ever get to see a Cube EV like the Denki Cube concept shown in New York this past March, well, that'd be pretty exciting. The platform is great, and the market is ripe for a neat car like this that won't kill you at the pump. If Nissan does this right and delivers a left-hand-drive Cube with highway fuel economy well into the 30s and pricing in the teens, it should be a bona-fide smash.

You can read my full review of what life with the Cube is like over at Autoblog.

Click here for translated Nissan Cube tech specs at Nissan Cube Life.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

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