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Car Reviews: Nissan Cube may be too cute for its own good

You’ve probably never heard of a car referred to as a “mobile device,” but that’s what Nissan marketers say best describes their Cube mini-crossover SUV.

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(For the record, Nissan spells it “cube.” I can’t. I won’t. Now with that out of the way, let’s return to the review, shall we?)

Every time I look at the Cube, it reminds me of those skinny wheeled Model T sedans you see in the grainy black-and-white archive films of New York and Chicago streets during the Roaring 20s.

Sorry, Nissan, I just can’t help it because the Cube, like the old Ts, has a bolt upright greenhouse with the big windows. The windows are asymmetric on the Cube, whereas the Roaring 20s Ford buckets weren’t, but the essential silhouette is the same.

Mechanically, the Cube shares its basic platform with Nissan’s Versa and Renault’s Clio (you forgot that Nissan and Renault are one firm, didn’t you!), as well as the forthcoming Nissan Juke.

But the Cube is aimed at trendy young urbanites who worry about the planet but need something capable of transporting a crowd of friends.

I was tempted throughout my week in a Steel Grey with black interior tester to imagine myself as a character driving around in a cartoon, but that’s likely a bit more harsh than Nissan deserves.

This is especially so now, considering that 2010 Cube sales aren’t exactly tearing up the charts. Kia’s Soul, for example, is outselling the Cube by about three-to-one on our shores, in contrast to the great popularity of the Cube back home in Japan.

In any case, the Cube is an admirable attempt to do something creative with your basic automotive box while keeping it practical and affordable for budget-minded buyers in multiple markets around the world. That concept is both the Cube’s strength and its weakness.

My loaded tester bottom-lined on the Monroney at just over $20,000 and came equipped with just about every feature Nissan could jam into it.

And I found absolutely no reason to doubt the veracity of the EPA fuel economy rating of 27 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

But in the final analysis, the Cube is entirely a city car and that’s a function of its weaknesses, which center under the hood where resides a 1.8 liter four-cylinder that is good for only 122 horsepower.

Worse yet, most Cubes are saddled with a standard wretched CVT transmission and front-wheel-drive. Why do I say “wretched” and “CVT” in the same sentence?

The CVT isn’t really a transmission so much as a collection of mechanical bands that replace the toothed gears in a conventional transmission.

Bands “slip” when placed under stress by the force of torque. This is why when you push down on the gas pedal of a CVT-equipped vehicle, it may remind you of a slipping clutch in a manual transmission car.

Especially with the smaller powerplants typically found in econoboxes, there is supposed to be a power delivery efficiency gain and thus a fuel economy advantage from using a CVT over a regular stick shift.

But I’ve yet to drive one at any price that didn’t “slip” and thus feel sloppy in operation. Maybe that’s just me, but I can’t imagine an efficiency engineer not getting the same feeling.

Okay, I’ll end the CVT rant. Oh by the way, you can also get your Cube with a conventional six-speed stick. I highly recommend it.

The Cube thus equipped does give excellent fuel economy, as long as you don’t have to do much accelerating up freeway on-ramps or navigate steep two-lanes carving a serpentine way up to a mountain pass. Keep your Cube in town and you’ll be happy.

There is lots of room inside the “casual lounge” interior of the Cube, so I have to give it credit there. The rear cargo door swings out wide to the left to reveal a fair amount of cargo space, too.

And the rear seats fold flat to open up even more space. But guess what, certain Cube rivals actually have more space inside, including the aforementioned Soul and the Scion xB.

The various shapes encountered inside the Cube continue the theme established by the asymmetry of the exterior, with the wave-shaped instrument panel being the most prominent such element. There are six cubholders and five bottle holders.

If you look long enough and closely enough at the Cube’s interior environs, you may also imagine that you see tear drops. Actually, you aren’t imagining those shapes, as Nissan’s designers incorporated what the marketers call “water drop concentric circles” in shaping various components.

It’s the presence of such considerations that make me guess the vast majority of Cube prospects and actual buyers are of the female persuasion.

Ride quality is definitely biased toward the soft end of the spectrum, which is no doubt because its makers expect most Cube owners to live in cities with roads that often feature potholes, heave ridges and other impediments to comfort.

I’ve probably been more negative than the Cube deserves, especially in the conceptual eyes of its market targets. Even with the criticisms herein, though, if you are thinking of an urban econobox, the Cube should definitely be on your list of possibilities.

Unless you are of the male persuasion in which case you probably haven’t even read this far.

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