Nissan’s Ugly Cube Exudes Gen Y Dorky Coolness: Jason H. Harper

Man is that thing ugly. Not just homely -- willfully, thoughtfully, ugly. I kind of like it.

Nissan Motor Co. calls it the Cube, a five-passenger thingamajig that came to the U.S. last year, the third generation of a vehicle that’s been on sale in Japan for more than a decade.

I do relish design, even when it confounds the conventions of beauty. And the Cube is certainly confounding. Maybe I prefer something willfully ugly over something as generically unsightly as a Chevy Aveo or Kia Rio.

On paper the Cube is a four-door hatchback. In real life it’s... something else. Imagine a big block of wax left in the sun, sharp edges beginning to melt, and you have an idea. Its roof is flat, the front windshield nearly bolt upright and the vertical back has a droop at the bottom, like a pair of XXL jeans about to slide off.

It’s not big. At 5.4 feet high and with 15-inch wheels that sit close to the ground, the Cube is a clubhouse on mini stilts. It’s shaped like one too, all the better to lounge inside while discussing the merits of Wii over PS3 and complaining about the lameness that “Gossip Girl” has become.

Nissan actually calls it the “cube Mobile Device” -- the lower-case “c” clearly marking it as a defier of authority.

Twitter Teens

Obviously the Cube is aimed at the kind of youths who already find Twitter SO last decade. Toyota’s Scion was one of the first to try to latch onto the under-25-demographic with its xB wagon. Now others are piling on.

Beyond the pandering, which teens can smell, the Cube is a good value. The base model starts just over $14,000, and includes six air-bags and standard stability control.

The concept of cars so ugly that they’re cool is hardly specific to Generation Y. Saabs of yore were peculiarly wonderful, and the AMC Pacer and Gremlin have gone from ignominy to some kind of wonderful. The VW Thing was all underdog charm.

For some, there is no redemption. The 2001 Pontiac Aztek was an attempt at a lifestyle vehicle, even including an optional tent. General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz recently told me history will change its mind and the Aztek will become a classic. Sorry, Bob. No.

Even at age 16 I would not have cared for the Cube. I always preferred the sleek and well proportioned -- Degas rather than Botticelli.

Upmarket Model

My test vehicle was the upmarket Krom model, which gets a fancier grill and body panels as well as interior upgrades like a banging sound system. It starts at a more mature $21,000. I came to the game late, so my test vehicle was a 2009 model with more than 12,000 miles and all the sheen rubbed off.

There’s plenty of whimsy inside, some fun, some just silly.

The roof-liner has a three-dimensional pattern radiating from the overhead light, like a stone tossed into a pond. Clever. A cup holder has an interior light which cycles through different color hues and is controlled by a twisty knob. Dorky. The cup holders are designed to accommodate Red Bull-sized energy drinks. Passe.

Oh, and there’s a circular piece of shag carpet on the top of the dash, attached by Velcro. It doesn’t hold items such as cell phones secure, so I’m unsure of its use. Some things are better left to the mysteries of Asia.

Nor is the interior as capacious as I had imagined. (See the Honda Element -- a vehicle which should be put to death for crimes against aesthetics, but which does hold lots of cargo.)

Little Leg Room

Leg room up front and in the second row of seats was fine for a Japanese anime character, but not quite enough for me. And the back seats don’t fold flat.

The most room is above your head. You could wear a ten- gallon hat and still hop up and down. Not useful, but awfully airy. Other brilliant bits include a hatchback door which swings to the side and the sheer number of windows throughout.

In fact there’s nary a blind spot, and its relative compactness and tight turning radius mean that it is a whiz to park and dash around in city traffic. With a mere 1.8-liter engine and 122 horsepower, the Cube isn’t going to be the king of any highway, but it’ll rock down Main Street just fine, especially at 27 miles per gallon.

I found myself disliking it less than I imagined, especially during a round of annoying about-town errands. Its practicality felt almost adult.

Then I would exit the vehicle and get double-takes from passers-by. You drive that?

I’d just wave at the spot of shag carpet on the dash knowingly. Not my fault if you aren’t down with the kids.

The 2010 Nissan Cube Krom at a Glance

Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Continuously variable.

Gas mileage per gallon: 27 city; 31 highway.

Price as tested: $20,420.

Best features: Spry size and lack of blind spots make a good city vehicle.

Worst feature: Have you seen this thing?

Target buyer: The Twitter fiend looking for a movable club house.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

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