SOUTH BEACH, Fla. -- Picture the scene along Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami's palm-fringed Capital of Cool: There's a green-grass promenade on the beach side of the street laced with bare-shouldered strollers and sweaty rollerbladers, while the city side shows lots of latte sippers lounging in smoky sidewalk cafes and Art Deco hotels tinted to the shades of sherbert.
And lining the curbs along this narrow street are more than a few gorgeous and glamorous automobiles, some vintage to fit the neighborhood's Deco decor, others of Italian extraction from exotic brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini.
Then comes the stand-out car we're nudging through the slow-go traffic along Ocean.
Its shape seems so different from any other set of wheels on this trendy street that the sunglass-shielded eyes of sidewalk spectators move like magnets to follow us driving by as faces break into smiles while several out-stretched fists form thumbs-up gestures of approval.
This unusual vehicle looks like a squatty square-cornered crate set on tiny wheels with a fat-lipped bulldog's face, a flat roof floating over a band of dark glass panels rimmed in picture frames and a blunt tail scored by a signature asymmetrical window wrapping around the right rear corner.
It contains a fuel-thrifty four-pack powertrain and a five-place passenger compartment with shag carpet on the dash, Bungee cords on the doors, wavy water-drop ripples in the headliner and tooth-rattling deep beats throbbing from the serious audio kit stoked by a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer.
Nissan labels this boxy-square crossover utility vehicle as the Cube, but we call it simply way-cool.
In 1998, Nissan rolled out the original Cube in the home market of Japan, and critics quickly dubbed it a wee box-on-wheels.
A second rendition followed, so the new Cube of 2009 -- destined for global sales -- marks a third generation.
It's a small-scale hatchback-style crossover utility vehicle built on Nissan's global B platform which also underpins the Nissan Versa in North America, Nissan Micra in Europe along with Renault's Clio and a Tiida sold by Nissan in Mexico, Japan and China.
Cube's designers suggest their inspiration for the big-chinned square shape of Cube with its massive band of window glass is -- conjure the image -- an English bulldog wearing oversized sunglasses.
Cube has a wheelbase that's relatively long (99.6 inches) in relation to the length of the body (156.7 inches) and a wide track (58.1 inches front/58.3 inches rear). The four small wheels mount at the corners of the car to forge a stable platform and pose a confident stance.
The suspension includes independent MacPherson struts in front with coil springs and stabilizer bar. In back, a torsion beam axle has an integrated stabilizer bar.
The steering system adds electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of the small engine.
Brakes utilize front vented discs and rear drums.
The list of stock equipment for safety includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA).
In addition, Nissan adds a vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device with a traction control system (TCS) to check lateral skidding, plus automatic brake limited slip (ABLS).
Cube's front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain consists of a modest four-cylinder engine linked to a choice of manual or automatic transmission.
The dual-cam 1.8-liter in-line-four, dubbed MR18DE at Nissan, is made from aluminum and comes with the intake manifold mounted in front and the exhaust manifold in back.
It musters 122 hp at 5200 rpm plus torque of 127 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
Standard transmission for the 1.8-liter four is a six-speed manual.
Optional transmission is an advanced continuously variable transmission (CVT) which Nissan calls Xtronic.
It never shifts from one gear to another because the CVT eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission as well as the resultant shift shock.
Using the Xtronic CVT, Cube achieves good fuel consumption numbers like an estimated 27 miles per gallon for in-town driving and 33 mpg at speed on a highway.
Nissan packs a lot of gear on Cube for passive safety.
First, the structure consists of a safety cell surrounding the passenger compartment with built-in front and rear crumple zones designed to absorb energy from a crash and deflect it from the cabin.
Then the cab is stuffed with air bags.
There are dual-stage frontal air bags plus side-impact air bags for the front seats and curtain-style side air bags mounted in the roof above front and rear outboard seats.
Further, Nissan adds active head restraints to the two front seats and the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system to back seats as well as child seat upper tether anchors and child safety rear door locks.
Cube's cabin is a generous space which defies the nature of subcompact-class vehicles.
Plan of the cabin consists of two bucket seats on the front row flanking a console and a second row "sofa style" bench with space for three. Rear seats slide as seatbacks recline or fold down flat.
Cargo space is vast. With rear seats folded, the stow space amounts to 58 cubic feet.
Cube trims out at four levels -- entry-model 1.8 Base, upgraded 1.8 S and 1.8 SL plus the special issue Krom (say "chrome").
Stock equipment ranges from an air conditioning system to an adjustable steering column, rear defroster and an audio package with AM/FM/CD and four speakers.
Cube 1.8 S adds body-colored outside mirrors, premium fabric covering seats, cruise control and a cover for the cargo bay. The 1.8 SL upgrades with the CVT, 16-inch aluminum wheels, auto on/off headlights, Automatic Temperature Control, Interface System for iPod, six audio speakers and more. And Cube 1.8 Krom varies with unique body parts, 16-inch aluminum wheels, sporty treatment to the cabin, the Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and Xtronic CVT.
But Cube calls for personalization, so Nissan offers more than 40 unique accessories -- everything from a colorful cabin lighting package to the shag dash topper, Bungees on doors, aerodynamic body kits and custom wheel sets.
Nissan ratchets MSRPs for Cube as low as $13,990.