Car Not Go

The Cube's four-cylinder engine offers up modest power at best, and it emits a muffled roar when pushed hard. There's little fun to be had at higher revs, which might have sufficed a decade ago. Today, though, even the least expensive cars can feel energetic in certain conditions, and the Cube rarely does. I found it markedly weaker than the xB and the Soul — though I should mention we haven't tested the Soul's base trim level, which has a smaller engine than other trims.

Interestingly, when I piled a couple of passengers into the Cube the extra weight didn't make it feel any less energetic. That isn't saying much, of course. Get used to downshifting if you want to pass anyone on the highway — and to making a fair number of steering corrections, too. Of these three cars, the Cube seems the most vulnerable to crosswinds.

My tester's six-speed manual transmission had precise gates but longish throws; it's mounted too close to the floor, which isn't the most ergonomic location, especially compared with the Soul's and xB's console-mounted shifters. (The xB's is practically on the dashboard, but it works in spite of that.) The clutch, on the other hand, is light and pretty forgiving, which makes the Cube a compelling choice among new cars for teaching a teen to drive stick. (Your run-of-the-mill used clunker, of course, is still eminently better.)

A continuously variable automatic transmission is optional on the 1.8 S and standard on the 1.8 SL and Krom. (The 1.8 comes only as a stick shift.) CVT models are EPA-rated at 28/30 mpg city/highway, which is both impressive and unusual: In non-hybrids, the variance between city and highway mileage is typically far greater. Nissan says it tuned the CVT specifically for these results. Either way, it's significantly better than the stick shift's 24/29 mpg.

EPA Gas Mileage Compared 2009 Nissan Cube 2010 Kia Soul* 2010 Scion xB Manual transmission 24/29 24/30 22/28 Automatic transmission 28/30 24/30 22/28 *With 2.0-liter engine. Base trim has 1.6-liter engine EPA-rated at 26/31 mpg city/highway with either transmission.

Source: EPA data. All three cars use regular fuel.

It's easy to see why the Cube is better suited for the urban jungle: A quiet cabin and decent ride quality are its strengths; spirited handling is not. The suspension eats up manhole covers and potholes with aplomb similar to the xB's. The Soul feels firmer, as do hatchbacks like the Honda Fit. The Cube's easygoing character also comes across in its steering: It turns with a light touch and unwinds to 12 o'clock in a natural, satisfying fashion.

Push the car harder, though, and it's too soft to really enjoy. Steering precision trails the xB and Soul, and there's a lot of body roll. The brake pedal brings the car to a halt decisively — not what I'd expected, given the low-tech drum brakes in back. It's far better than the xB's mushy pedal response — and that car has all-disc brakes — but I did notice a lot of nosedive under heavy braking in the Cube. Antilock brakes are standard.

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