Nissan embraces cubism

A century ago, painter Pablo Picasso helped pioneer the cubism movement that ushered in a new form of modern art. Today, Nissan is introducing its own automotive version of Picasso’s unfettered canvasses to North America with the offbeat — make that off-the-wall — Cube van.

Although a radical departure from the rest of Nissan’s lineup, the subcompact Cube, which is scheduled to go on sale this May, is by no means a totally new transportation concept. The Japanese-based brand actually began back in 1998 and was thoroughly updated four years later, by which time its popularity had grown.

Japanese automakers have an affinity for exporting funky little squarish boxes to our turf: the Honda Element, Toyota Matrix and the first-generation Scion Xb. Lately, the Korean automakers have also become swept up in the whole cubist movement as evidenced by the new Kia Soul. All of these products are squarely aimed at young drivers seeking their own form of self-expression through a cool and versatile set of wheels.

The Cube, however, is different than its competitors. An earthy, organic shape masks its practical nature as a contemporary people and cargo mover. The design also ignores the notion that symmetry is a necessary styling ideal. The rear window, for example, is located off center and does not have a uniform shape. The rear side glass is irregular-shaped; the gauges are asymmetrical; there are available brightly colored bungee-style rubber bands (that can be used to attach small items to the armrests); and the wavy dash can be partially covered in simulated wood or optional shag carpeting. Unconventional? Yes, but interesting and daring. The Cube’s marshmallow-soft silhouette will draw considerable attention, along with plenty of spirited debate.

Not open for discussion is the Cube’s diminutive size, which is about 5 inches shorter than the Kia Soul and more than a foot shorter than the Honda Element and Toyota Matrix.

Entrance to the storage compartment is through a large side-hinged rear door that swings open a full 90 degrees as long as the vehicle isn’t parked up against a building or another vehicle (which cuts down the swing room). Inside, there’s a reasonable amount of floor-to-ceiling storage room and more available with the split-folding, fore-and-aft adjustable bench seat folded flat.

Credit for the Cube’s standard 122-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder powerplant goes to Nissan’s entry-point Versa sedan/wagon. There’s enough power here to easily handle a variety of highway- and vehicle-load conditions, but not so much as to encourage over-exuberant behavior among youthful drivers.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard on base models, while a fuel-saving continuously variable unit is optional.

The Cube will be offered in four models including a base 1.8 that’s fitted with power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry and a basic audio system. The 1.8 S and 1.8 SL significantly increase the content level by adding air conditioning, automatic speed control, push-button ignition, alloy wheels and other upgrades.

By far the fanciest model is the Krom, complete with a chrome grille and air-intake bars, lower bodyside cladding, roof spoiler and unique wheels. On the inside, look for climate control, a six-speaker audio package, special seat coverings and trim, plus an adjustable interior ambient-lighting system.

Personalization will also prominently figure in the Cube’s marketing strategy, with a host of available factory and dealer-installed dress-up content offered. Among the most intriguing is the “Ginormous Package” that bundles a number of interior/exterior dress-up bits and pieces.

With a base price in the $14,000 range, the Cube is well within reach of many first-time and multivehicle-family buyers, and is certainly cheaper than hanging a Picasso on your wall. And of course, you can’t drive a Picasso around town.

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