2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 S
2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 S. Click image to enlarge

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First Drive: 2009 Nissan Cube

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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2009 Nissan Cube

Oshawa, Ontario – I just love little Japanese tchotchkes. As a result of numerous trips to Asian stores in Toronto, my office is scattered with all manner of rubber sushi rolls, anime characters, plastic creatures and, of course, way too much Hello Kitty. Needless to say, the Nissan Cube was a perfect fit.

This odd-looking five-seater is new to Canada for 2009, but our model is actually the third generation of a nameplate that first appeared in Japan in 1998. Its styling comes over virtually unchanged which, depending on personal taste, will either have you flocking to it, or using the same word in front of “ugly” that my neighbour did when she saw it, and which I can’t print here.

The Cube is based on the Nissan Versa hatchback, and uses that model’s 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine. With a starting price of $16,998 for my S tester, it’s considerably more than the Versa hatchback, which starts at $13,998. But the Cube comes much better equipped: standard equipment includes air conditioning, power locks with keyless entry, and power windows, which are extra-charge on the Versa, along with cruise control and an auxiliary jack for the stereo, which are unavailable on the base Versa hatchback.

2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 S
2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 S
2009 Nissan Cube 1.8 S. Click image to enlarge

Both the Versa and Cube have six airbags and active front head restraints, but anti-lock brakes are standard on the Cube, and optional on the base Versa hatchback. Nissan also puts electronic stability control on both trim lines of the Cube (the upper-line SL is $20,698), but it’s unavailable on any Versa.

My Cube came with the default transmission, a six-speed manual, which is rare in a segment that’s more commonly equipped with five-speeds. The automatic transmission choice is a CVT, which is a $1,300 option on the base S, and the only unit available on the SL. I haven’t driven it in the Cube, but I have in the Versa, and I wasn’t keen on it. Nissan’s CVTs work exceptionally well in its larger vehicles, but when mated to this smaller engine, I found it sluggish, with a tendency for everything to drone at lower r.p.m.s. I really like the Cube’s six-speed, though: it’s well set up for commuter driving, with a light clutch, slick shifter and easy operation. The trade-off is fuel economy: while the six-speed is rated at 8.3 L/100 km in the city and 6.6 on the highway, the CVT’s published rate is 7.3 L/100 km in the city and 6.5 on the highway. In combined driving, I averaged 7.7 L/100 km (37 mpg Imp).

Designed for crowded Tokyo streets, the Cube is no powerhouse. Its little engine is buzzy and takes its time to get up to speed. The stick shift comes in handy, letting the driver make the most of the engine’s 122 horses and 127 lb-ft of torque. If there’s anything to really fault with the Cube in the city, it’s the ratio of fuel to power. I don’t mind gentle performance if there’s a trade-off at the pumps, but some of its manual-equipped small-footprint competitors feel much livelier for less: in city driving, the five-speed Chevrolet Aveo rates at 7.9 L/100 km, the Honda Civic and Hyundai Accent rate at 7.4, Mini gets 7.1, and Corolla rates 7.5.

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