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2010 Nissan Cube (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)
2010 Nissan Cube (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)

Faceoff

Souled on cubed cars Add to ...

All that's beautiful about a box is how much it holds, really.

In the absence of curves there can be nothing scintillating, provocative, or admirable for the ages. Venus de Milo might be packed in a box for shipment. Otherwise the connection with sculpture does not exist.

Yet automobile designers' fascination for the rectilinear shows no sign of abating. They keep trying to introduce eye-catching appeal, if not exactly beauty, into boxy little cars. Nissan Cube and Kia Soul are the latest renderings, following Toyota's Scion xB and Honda's Element.

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2010 Nissan Cube

The Cube's molten bodywork and wrap-around rear window and Soul's chiselled lines please the beholder, or not. I'm not about to judge them as entries in some boxy beauty pageant. My concern is how they deliver large-vehicle space within small-vehicle exterior dimensions, thus using less fuel and fitting tighter parking spots.

First, I spent a week with a Cube 1.8 SL, then a week with another Cube decorated with the Krom Package, and finally a week in a Soul bearing the not-so-catchy model name, 2.0L 4u Retro.

They sell for $23,000 to $24,000 fully trimmed. Much lower prices appear in ads for these cars, for example $15,975 for a Soul with the smaller of two available engines and a manual transmission and excluding a $1,650 destination/delivery fee.

2010 Kia Soul

As similar as they are in concept, Cube and Soul differ greatly in attributes. Beginning with the most noteworthy factor for those Eco Driver readers who base their purchase decisions on litres consumed per 100 km, the Nissan turns out to be significantly more fuel-efficient, the Kia the more powerful.

The Cube averages 9.1 L/100 km in our city-area driving, the Soul 10.9 (the official Natural Resources Canada ratings are in the specs). The difference is due to the smaller engine and continuously variable automatic transmission with which Nissan powers its box compared to Kia's combination of 2.0-litre engine and four-speed automatic. The Soul feels more responsive and makes less noise in hard acceleration.

The back seat is the very best vantage point for appreciating either car. Headroom and legroom are nothing short of amazing. In the case of the Cube, the rear seat slides and reclines in the cause of passenger comfort or, alternately, maxing cargo space. Comparing cargo volume, the Kia has more with the rear seat up, 546 litres versus the Cube's 323, but the situation reverses with seats folded, the Cube edging the Soul 1,645 to 1,511.

2010 Kia Soul

The roominess may equal that of large luxury sedans, but the boxes' economy car underpinnings become obvious once you're driving. Torsion beam rear axles aren't designed for comfort, so neither car rides well on the moonscape of Toronto's mean winter streets. The Kia is particularly thuddish over bumps. The power assist in the Kia's steering occasionally fails when the wheel is turned hard - something experienced by Popular Mechanics in its review as well as by this driver.

On very cold mornings, the Cube's dash creaks. The Soul's rear wiper operates with a click of a solenoid heard within the dash for every wipe.

But for their immense interiors, these cars would seem to be a triumph of style over content - at least for those who find them stylish. The attractive interiors have shortcomings as well.

A reflection of the dashboard in the Soul windshield is disconcerting for this driver. It's a stylish dash, but seeing it twice - mirrored in the windshield - is once too often. Nighttime in the Cube, the passenger-side front door window scarily reflects cars passing on the driver's side. Any time at highway speeds in the Cube, the wind noise over the near-vertical windshield is unusually loud.

2010 Nissan Cube

All of the above complaints require mention if this review is to mean anything. But it also sells short the fundamental appeal of these boxes on wheels. Their roominess coupled with their turn-on-a-dime nature lends them great appeal for city drivers prone to cursing the street maintenance department rather than their vehicles' suspensions for a rough ride.

The Cube turns in 9.4 metres, the Soul 10.5 metres, making for easy parking and U-turns. All-round vision is particularly good in the Cube. Plus a rear-view monitor functions when reverse is engaged (standard in the Krom model, part of a $800 option group in the other). Nissan's so-called Intelligent key allows you to get into the vehicle and start it without removing the key from one's pocket. It feels good when everything is so easy.

Interior ambient lighting in the Cube Krom is selectable from a spectrum of 20 colours. The door speakers in the Soul pulse in bright orange unless one opts for turning them off. Clearly Nissan and Kia are pursuing the younger buyer Toyota is supposed to have attracted in Japan and the U.S. with its Scion xB (coming to Canada later this year).

Our experience, surprisingly enough, was that older, not younger, onlookers showed interest in these basic boxes with all the trimmings. The verdict will become clear in year-end sales figures.

*****



2010 Kia Soul 2.0L 4u Retro

2010 Nissan Cube 1.8 SL

Type

Four-door hatchback

Four-door wagon

Base Price

$20,295; as tested, $23,845

$20,898; as tested, $23,023

Engine

2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/Torque

142 hp/137 lb-ft

122 hp/127 lb-ft

Transmission

Four-speed automatic

CVT

Drive

Front-wheel-drive

Front-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km):

Government lab test result, 8.5 city/6.6 highway; our actual urban driving 10.9; regular ga

Government lab test result, 7.3 city/6.3 highway; our actual urban driving, 9.1; regular gas

Alternatives

Nissan Cube, Toyota Scion Xb, Honda Element

Kia Soul, Toyota Scion xB, Honda Element

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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