The automobile is an incredibly important part of American culture. It represents freedom, independence and the iconic open road. It is a physical artifact of the political, cultural and social structures of the nation. Then what happens when a car enters the American market with an ideology that contrasts with its foundations? A car that can further investigate this discussion is the Cube, a vehicle manufactured and designed by the Japanese company Nissan. There is much deeper story that can be found once you dig deeper at the blocky car. I have decided to observe several key areas. First is the historical context of the car, and its hybridic with Japanese history and culture. Next, we can see how the car was adjusted in the export models to assimilate better. Then, an observation can be made on how the company modified its marketing tactics to make the car theoretically easier to digest in the US. Along the way, we can see the missteps in selling a car that is so fundamentally Japanese to an unsuspecting market.
After the Second World War, the nation of Japan was in a horrible economic situation. This meant that most people ended up buying bicycles and motorcycles as their main mode of transportation. An automobile was reserved as a luxury. The government of Japan decided that the country should make a recovery effort by advancing the manufacturing and technology sectors. Realizing that transportation would be key to achieving this, the government decided to create regulations to create a new category of vehicles. This new class was named as keijidōsha or “kei car”. This category was designed to promote automakers to produce efficient and cheap vehicles that can act as an alternative to motorcycles. This created a huge increase in car owners and helped get a broken nation back in motion. The regulation was first created on 1949 and included a maximum, length, width, height and engine displacement dimensions. At the time, the length of the cars were restricted to 2.8m and the engine at 150cc. These dimensions have slowly increased and today, kei cars are restricted to 3.9m with a 660cc engine. Kei cars come with other perks too - the limitations are designed precisely to exploit tax and insurance costs. Also, unlike other cars sold in Japan, kei cars do not require evidence for adequate parking; a big difference because it means that they are reliant on your real-estate value. According to the Japan Mini Vehicles Association, the Suzuki Wagon R has been the best selling of the kei class in Japan since 2003. It is the car that exemplifies the success of its category and defines the domestic Japanese auto market. A visual analysis makes it evident that Nissan took inspiration from this successful product. A class of vehicle that has resisted traditional classification has now become the de facto aesthetic and structural standard and has now influenced the design of cars of a “normal” class.
When Nissan went to design the third generation Cube, it was done with the intention to sell the car in the US. This time, the exterior design was lead by an American and graduate of Art Center College of Design, John Sahs. Though I have no proof, I believe this was done as an action to design a more global car. He was however given the task of doing an update for an existing vehicle, not starting from scratch. This resulted in a third generation design that still has the original Japanese ideologies interwoven into the car. Nissan seems to have realized that the second generation’s extremely rectilinear design would be too polarizing so they made the third generation a softer design that’s more traditionally “automotive”. Nissan likes to call it “softened like a pebble in a stream.” This is where the Cube fundamentally fails in satisfying the needs of the American market. The car may have new sheet metal but the underlying principles and structure is the same. Even with the softened lines, the car is still a boxy homage to Japan’s city planning and the asymmetrical window is still a functional addition originated from tight Tokyo streets. The interior of the new Cube actually ended up being an even more Japanese expression than before. Designed by Tadamasa Hayakawa, the seating is reminiscent of a love-seat with a high seating position and cushy padding. These seats are then laid out almost like an Onsen (Japanese hot springs) with a social and including layout. The surrounding lines of the interior then encompass the passengers and promotes a unique social experience. These are all alien concepts to the American market where the focus is in creating a driver focused cabin experience. A car is considered an extension of the driver in the western world, not a communal pool.
The Japanese marketing for the Cube emphasizes three things. The first is the room-like interior cabin. Nissan uses the tagline, “Cube. My room.” This is supported by TV commercials showing groups of people relaxing in the car as if it is a living room. The second reoccurring element is the emphasis on the sofa-like seats of the Cube. In a TV commercial for the 2011 Cube, the exterior of the car is only shown briefly and most of the time is spent on showing how plush and soft the seats are. The ad rarely shows the exterior of the car and doesn’t even show the driver’s seat of the car. The viewer is just shown the rear seat that is so reminiscent of a sofa. Lastly, some of the Japanese advertisements have emphasis on the soft and gentle nature of the car. The ads in 2009 were backed by the tagline, “I’m Peaceful.” and a reoccurring bulldog - which the car bears much resemblance to. This is another issue with the Cube in the west. The car has absolutely no intention in showing aggression. If you look at the American automotive market, most cars have a certain desire to show power and competence - a visualization of how the car is very much an expression of oneself in the culture. The Cube does not follow this system, it is all about comfort and having a gentle expression. This is once again a very Japanese trait. The car was birthed from a hyper urban environment where the space is limited and therefore, the experience of driving stressful and a chore. Driving in tight streets is not widely taken as a form of escape and freedom like in the States. The Cube is designed to be a sanctuary from the tense and claustrophobic driving experience. This seems to connect very well with Japanese consumers. The soft sofa-like seats and unusually generous headroom of the interior all make this marketing a valid proposition. The fundamental idea behind creating a living room on wheels is sort of a genius one, but requires a level of social acceptance to be absorbed. Nissan seems to have understood that a differentiation in marketing needed to take place between the Japanese and American launch tactics. In the US, they used the tagline, “Cube Mobile Device”. The ads show the Nissan cube as having traits of a digital “device”. For instance, when the driver enters the car, a popup says, “Login” and when his friends enter the car, a “Add friends” button shows up. The Cube’s wheels throughout the ad don’t spin even when the car is driving, emphasizing the digital aesthetic over the mechanical. This campaign was largely unsuccessful and the Cube consistently saw leisurely sales figures. It’s not hard to see why though - the ads are completely fabricated without any basis in the actual car’s design. In reality, the car is rather spartan in terms of technology. Options like navigation are now available, but during launch they couldn’t even be optioned in. In hindsight, it seems like Nissan was hoping to appeal to drivers that now relate better with devices than automobiles. People of a culture are able to very easily identify impostors, and most people seemed to have seen the Cube for what it was. Reviews done by journalists also frequently commented on this disconnect. The car is not what it is promising to be and is just an awkward car that belongs in the tight streets of Tokyo, not the ten-lane freeways of America.
Nissan has also made some physical changes to the American version of the Cube other than moving the steering wheel to the left. What’s little known is that the Nissan Cube is sold as a hybrid in Japan with the rear wheels being driven by an electric drivetrain. In that market, these boxy cars are so common place that the hybrid powertrain acts as a point of differentiation. Though the reasons haven’t been officially stated, the removal of the hybrid drive system is probably a decision made to make the car more mainstream. The car is already an off-putting composite of many elements, and making it an electric hybrid would only add to the complexity. There are more changes made to the Cube to muffle its unusual character. The American model comes in grey, black and navy seat colors, all pretty standard issue. The Japanese model comes in unique flavors like green, brown velour and camel suede. The Japanese also receive plush carpeting not unlike a rug one would have in a living room. This idea of the living room on wheels continues to the accessories, where Nissan offers things like wooden garnish and a diverse selection of carpets and seat covers. Nissan has made even further tweaks like splitting the seat to a more traditional design instead of the bench sofa seat of the Japanese domestic market version. Because the American model now has space in between the passenger and driver, the column mounted gear shift has now been moved in between the two seats. By diluting the design of the Cube, the messaging of the car has become a mixed one. The car now has broken signifiers of the original vision for the car. The exported interior is both visually and functionally broken, all done to gain acceptance in a market the car was never intended for.
The Nissan Cube is a car that could have only come out of Japan. The cultural and regulatory influences can be seen visually throughout the car. And this infestation of ideologies is exactly what has made the car so off-putting to American consumers. It is a car that resists classification in the US. I am a driver of a 2011 Nissan Cube and every time I look at my insurance information, I notice that my car has been categorized as a “5 seat wagon”. The car is shorter than a car like the Volkswagen Golf yet has too much interior room to be classified as a compact hatchback. The car clearly exceeds existing boundaries. In this way, the Cube is very much a “monster”. Though speculative, it may even fulfill in having elements of anxiety that propagate through American culture. The Japanese auto makers were initially rejected by some as the market was scared of the Japanese taking over the American auto industry. To fight this, the cars that Nissan, Honda and Toyota sell in the US are very American in design and now, 70% of the vehicles sold are manufactured right in America. The Nissan Cube may be bringing back this old fear in at a subconscious level. The car is like an evangelist of Japanese culture that has come to the US. And because the car is so central to American culture, it really is a hard sell - and it shows - the Cube is one of the worst selling cars in Nissan’s US lineup. It’s also worth noting that the Nissan cube is the same car as the Nissan Versa mechanically, which is currently the best selling compact car in the United States. It’s impressive how much of an impact design can have. The Nissan Cube is a rarity in the automotive industry. In the midst of an industry that is afraid of change, Nissan has taken the ideas of a regulation based kei class car and implemented them on a compact car. The Cube is the mainstreaming of the kei car, an unclassifiable outcast when it was first introduced. The Cube was a big hit in Japan and became a design icon, but completely flopped due to immense cultural walls that stood between Japanese and American philosophies. The car is a lesson in design and its relationship to cultural and social ideologies. Regardless of market success in America, the car will be remembered by history. I think The New York Times said it best: