2011 Nissan Cube Driving Impressions

Most vehicles in this class suffer from nondescript handling. Not the Cube. Weighing in at just 2800 pounds in its basic form, the Nissan Cube is surprisingly fun to drive. It's much more responsive and communicative than the Nissan Sentra, Toyota Matrix, Scion xB, Kia Soul, and Suzuki SX4.

The suspension under the Cube is entirely conventional, with MacPherson struts, coil springs and a stabilizer bar up front, and a torsion beam setup with coil springs and a stabilizer bar at the rear. Simple, cheap and effective, this system is tuned to limit body roll in corners, so the Cube feels stable and planted on its relatively skinny, tall tires.

The steering is light and easy, but not ropey; its variable assist is vehicle-speed-sensitive even on the base model. The driver's seating position is nice and high, with really excellent outward vision in all directions. Base and S models ride on P195/60HR15 tires on 15-inch wheels; SL and Krom have slightly lower-profile 195/55VR16 tires on 16-inch wheels, but there are no options larger than that.

One of the driving dynamics that distinguishes the Cube is its 33.4-foot turning circle, the shortest in the class, and more than six feet shorter than some of its competitors, a factor that just makes the Cube more maneuverable in tight places than the other cute little cars.

We found the brakes worked fine in busy, crazy downtown Miami traffic, defending the Cube against tourists, pedestrians, scooters and cabbies, with good power and good pedal modulation. The brakes are discs front and drums rear (drum brakes cost less), but the Cube comes with all the safety features, including traction and yaw control and ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist.

The Cube's relatively light weight doesn't tax the 122-horsepower engine at all. It feels reasonably quick getting away from stoplights and stop signs in urban and suburban settings.

The driving fun is turned up a bit with the 6-speed manual transmission. Despite long throws, the manual is easy to shift and it allows experienced drivers to get the most out of the small engine.

The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, is operated the same way as an automatic transmission: Shift into drive and it does its thing. We found it worked very well with the engine's 127 pound-feet of torque. While some CVTs leave you waiting around for the revs to catch up to the ratios, making for a noisy and clunky driving experience, the Cube's CVT is much more responsive. Most won't even be able to tell the difference between it and a conventional automatic.

With either transmission, the Cube is not a rocket ship, but it more than keeps up with the traffic, and it isn't buzzy or whiny at freeway speeds.

The Cube runs on regular gas, and with the CVT it is EPA-rated at 27/31 mpg City/Highway. The 6-speed manual is somewhat less efficient, at 25/30 mpg.

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