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First drive: Nissan Cube inches closer

Boxy: Current Cube will be replaced by a new model to appear in November.

Nissan's next-generation Cube light car is on track for sale in Australia

16 May 2008

NISSAN will supplement its burgeoning light-car portfolio in Australia with the Cube. An announcement about an on-sale date is expected some time in 2009, following the unveiling of the next-generation model at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

This month, Nissan teased media representatives with a highly shrouded image of the 2009 Cube at the company’s "360" global driving event in Portugal, revealing that the next version would be a vehicle with “global” reach.

A Nissan Australia spokesman said that the current Cube was seriously considered in lieu of the K12 Micra two years ago, but the business case for the relatively low-volume light-car just did not add up at the time.

However, with the next Cube designed to sell in much greater numbers all over the world instead of being a mainly Japan domestic market product, it appears that Nissan can mount a much sounder case for importing the new model – particularly in light of the unexpected success of the Micra in Australia over the last six months.

At Nissan 360, Alfonso Albaisa – vice-president at Nissan Design Europe – revealed that “Super Evolution” is the company’s latest design mantra.

This translates to a very similar-looking car to the current Cube, with a slightly larger and stronger body engineered with greater crash-test and pedestrian-impact ratings.

According to a Nissan spokesman, the interior is likely to boast the biggest change, with softer-feel materials and a more contemporary visage compared to the basic and utilitarian-looking current Cube.

Like all previous editions, Nissan will again use its B-segment platform as the basis for the Cube.

12 center imageIn this case, it will be the next-generation K13 Micra/March architecture, which is front-wheel drive and accommodates a transverse engine but also offers part-time four-wheel drive capability.

The next Micra will not break cover until late next year at the earliest, with a 2010 on-sale date likely for Australia.

This car, too, will espouse “Super Evolution” in its styling, but will be a lot less rounded than the long-serving K12 series (which, like the Cube, was released late in 2002).

Petrol engine choices for Australia are likely to be of around 1.4 litres in capacity, although – being based on the Renault/Nissan Alliance B-platform that is also used by the Tiida and Note, as well as a host of Renault models including the Clio, Modus and Twingo – 1.8-litre petrol, 1.5-litre dCi turbo-diesel and electric/hybrid engine installations are not out of the question either.

Nissan displayed an electric concept car based on the current (second-generation) model at the New York International Auto Show in March. Dubbed the Cube ‘Denki’ (which is Japanese for electric), it featured an electric vehicle (EV) drivetrain with Lithium Ion batteries.

Global design director, Ishiro Nakamura, stated that the US version will definitely include a hybrid model using an electric motor powered by Lithium Ion battery technology and driving all four wheels via Nissan’s part-time system called e4WD. This is due sometime around 2010/11.

The Cube is Nissan’s great white hope in replicating the success of Toyota’s Scion brand in the United States, where – since launching in 2003 with a range of Yaris light-car based vehicles including the Cube-like xB – the Toyota sub-brand has netted a much younger average demographic than the parent marque.

Capturing the notoriously fickle sub-30-year-old consumer group and retaining it, as people grow older, is the underlining job of the Cube for Nissan.

Honda, too, has seen an influx of new-to-the-brand buyers with the Jazz-based Fit since its US release in 2006, while Ford has made no bones about the next-generation Fiesta’s role as the company’s youth ambassador in America from next year.

The original Cube grew out of the 1992-2002 K11 Micra/March model in 1998, as an MPV-style runabout designed especially for the Japanese market.

However, the second-generation version released in Japan in October 2002 brought the striking geometric shape and asymmetrical daylight opening (DLO) detail that has since become something of a modern design icon.

An extended version known as the Cube Cubic brought a 170mm increase in both length (to 3900mm) and wheelbase (to 2600mm), with the extra space being used to good effect as the basis for the Cube Denki concept earlier this year.

Drive impressions:

NISSAN has a vehicle with the icon potential of the Fiat 500 or BMW Mini in the Cube, so it is no surprise that all stops have been pulled to put this boxy little number on sale around the world come 2009.

But does it work in the metal?This car has the head-turning ability of a scantily clad supermodel meandering through a fat farm, but with a friendly face that invites you to smile and come up for a closer look.

The good people of Portugal certainly paid the Cube plenty of admiring attention. This is one heck of a striking car, combining artful Japanese style with nicely proportioned detailing. And the face isn’t too twee either.

The asymmetry of the side and rear windows isn’t immediately obvious unless you walk around the car or see two parked facing each other.

But while the six-year-old current car is still fresh to our eyes on the outside, a dashboard that seems dated and cheap dominates the Cube’s interior. Happily, the future version will have a completely redesigned cabin.

Nevertheless, from the driver’s seat, the extra side window (placed in the D pillar) helps with placing the car while parking. Vision out generally is good thanks to the large DLO and a lofty seating position, while the overall ambience is one of pleasing utility and function.

We also love the bench seating that feels much more thickly padded than in other Nissans. Why don’t more cars have this sort of layout, especially as a well-placed column shift means there need not be any lower centre console to work around?Being based on the current B-platform architecture serving the Micra, Tiida and fabulous Note, as well as Renault’s Clio, Twingo and Modus, the Cube is a surprisingly deft car to drive.

Fat 15-inch rubber might provide a firm ride, but the Cube’s steering reacts sharply, the handling has an eager edge to it, and the roadholding is good.

But it is the body that most appeals, from the incredibly spacious interior offering proper room in all directions for at least four adults, to the side-hinged clam-like tailgate that opens like a huge safe door, for unfettered access to the cavernous cargo area.

The Cube is going to be a sure-fire success, have no doubt. How many budding car designers have sketched a city car that looked like this? It appeals to that part of the brain that – particularly in toddlers and young children – reacts to big simple stimuli, like Lego building blocks or men in colourful skivvies singing about cars and dinosaurs. Yet in its sheer simplicity, the Cube is both ultra sophisticated and utterly classless.

This Nissan is a little like the automotive equivalent to the original Apple iPod, and even scores over the Mini and 500 by not being retro or pastiche, but the real thing.

This isn’t post-modern… this is now. So we sure hope Nissan doesn’t stuff up the new one. Not importing the Cube is corporate insanity.

Read more:

New York show: US enters Nissan's Cube

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