Some People’s Idea of Fun

The spirit of innovation which brought you the trabant is alive and well in today's transportation appliances.

I was recently reading Car and Driver’s 1969 road test of the Fiat 850 sedan, because that’s what I do in my free time. The 850 was was supposed to compete with imported economy cars, especially the Beetle, which if not fast was at least somewhat fun and definitely charming. Aside from 30 mpg fuel economy and a $1,656 base price, however, it failed utterly. Not only was it not fun, it wasn’t practical, with limited passenger space, a crummy Idroconvert transmission (a clutchless manual like the Bug's) and a 32 second 0-60 time. Thirty two seconds. In 1969, the Federal speed limit was 75 mph, so 32 seconds after you hit the on-ramp, you’d still be going 15 mph slower than most traffic and you’d never actually get there at all, as the Fiat optimistically topped out at 72 mph. As C&D said, “one can dislike the Fiat for an almost infinite number of reasons.” I could turn my chair slightly and look up the sales figures, but as I look at old cars all day, every day and I’ve seen maybe one in the last decade, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they didn’t sell very well; they didn’t last long; and people didn’t like them.

Which brings me to Nissan. Nissan and Toyota seem to be having some sort of perverse competition to make their cars as unsightly as possible and in their economy cars, as joyless as possible, too. They’re neck and neck with the Yaris and the Versa, but then Nissan pulls ahead with the atrocious Leaf over the acceptable Prius. Toyota battles back with the dreary Corolla over the adequate Sentra, but Toyota has nothing like the Cube.

The improved 2008 Cube

The improved 2008 Cube

When I first saw the Cube--which is that cube-shaped, asymmetrical vehicle you might see around--I hated it. Then it actually grew on me, until one day I was reading about Soviet-era cars like Lada and Trabant, and I realized exactly what the Cube was.

I have friends who drive Cubes, and if you’re coming out of something like a first generation Hyundai Accent, a Cube must have been amazing. But nothing about it is fun, starting with its styling. I would guess many (a relative term) people who own one or care about such things went through the same stages of grieving I did: denial; then depression; and possibly acceptance. After all, it’s different! Whee!

The way in which it’s different, however, is Soviet Different, different by committee. I know it was originally constructed for the Japanese home market where cars that look like surprised fish are everywhere, but even there groups of product planning executives spent countless hours discussing Five Ways The Cube Can Be Different; and How Can We Repackage This Drivetrain Yet Again; and then ticked off boxes on a checklist: Grille, Doors, Windows, Headliner, Dash. And then in 2008, American product planning executives said, yeah! Let’s sell it here! It’s different! Whee!

What it lacked was substance. It holds a lot but so do other perfectly fine cars,and cubic feet was the Cube’s one trick. It was slow, unexciting, had poor aerodynamics and mileage and generally came saddled with a woeful continuously variable transmission (see: Idroconvert). Underneath the Five Differences it was an economy appliance, a self-storage unit, and no amount of bunting and balloons could turn it into a boutique.

Thankfully, Nissan is even now very, very slowly selling off the very last 2014 Cubes, but don’t worry: The torch has been passed. The perfectly awful Scion iQ and Mitsubishi’s totally unacceptable i-MiEV and new Mirage are the current champions. There more up-and-coming hopefuls, like the un-wonderful Chevrolet Spark and Honda’s very strong entrant in the Terrible Styling Derby, the CR-Z. Even BMW has the i3 and as you know, all cars starting with a lowercase “i” are ugly.

The Cube was not the only example, but it’s the perfect one as it was surely the best-selling worst car in America, the standard-bearer for calculated corporate cynicism. It’s what you get when the “car” part of a car is the last consideration, after marketing and accounting have their say. Sometimes it can seem as though we’ll get cars like the Fiat 850 and Cube forever. But there are exceptions, and next month I’ll talk in a much less curmudgeonly way about what happens when a car is built with no involvement from accounting and marketing at all (Hint: you get the best car of the 20th Century).

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