Outside the Box
Three firsts: New car, lease, road trip. Or, why older folks like youthful vehicles, too.
Buying a new car is never easy. No matter how well armed we are with facts, figures, and expert opinions, making the choice and closing the deal are frightful tasks for most of us.
Because I drive nearly every vehicle on the market during my work as an auto journalist, picking one to buy or lease should be a snap, right? Far from it—especially when you’ve never done it before.
Most Americans have owned at least one new vehicle; or, if not quite new, at least a late model automobile. Not me.
Of the dozens of vehicles I've owned, every last one was a used car. Most were heavily used, in fact, typically on their last legs. Up until 2010, the newest vehicle I'd ever purchased was five years old. Most were far older. More often than not, I turned out to be the final owner, soon sending that car to the crusher.
Having always paid cash, too, I’d missed the joys of confronting a finance person at any dealership.
New-Auto Ownership—For the First Time
Finally, early in 2010, we realized that we had to obtain a vehicle—and the prospect of yet another used one failed to appeal. So, I began to ponder the possibilities, based upon my many test-drives of new models.
Good fortune smiled a bit, because we had only three criteria: 1. Because my wife Marianne is disabled and has mobility problems, the vehicle had to be especially easy to get into and out of. 2. If possible, it should be distinctive in design, standing apart from the crowd. 3. Because we advocate "green" motoring, it should be fuel-efficient.
Quite a few of those old cars I’d owned were humdrum American sedans, but the most memorable were quirky imports: an early Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus, a Volvo PV544 (which resembled a shrunken Ford coupe of the late 1940s), and even a Renault Dauphine that rarely ran but looked adorable. Other fondly recalled acquisitions were “orphan” American makes: twin Studebaker GT Hawks, a trio of step-down Hudsons, and a rusted-out Nash Ambassador that converted into a mobile bed. Our last vehicle was a first-generation Chrysler LeBaron convertible.
Back in those years when most young fellows growing up in early postwar America turned toward muscle cars and sports cars, I found myself intrigued more by Citroens and DKWs, Morris Minors and Peugeots. Cars that were different, unique, special.
Well, nothing at U.S. dealerships today is as quirky and unique as the Nissan cube, an asymmetrically boxy little four-door microvan/wagon launched as a late 2009 model. Only the first-generation Scion xB, Kia's Soul, and Honda's Element come close in distinctive, utterly unconventional styling. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the cube with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) a thrifty fuel-economy estimate: initially 28 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, later adjusted to 27/31 mpg.
Coincidentally, of all the vehicles I’d driven over the past year or two, the cube turned out to be the easiest—by far—for my wife to enter. Rather than struggle as usual, she slipped almost effortlessly into the cube. Better yet, we both thought the cube was the cutest car on the market. As chance would have it, Nissan had a special lease offer on selected cubes at that very moment. So our decision was made.
Our experience with a nearby Nissan dealer turned out to be pleasant and enlightening. Even though the salespeople knew I am an auto journalist, they went through the sales process virtually “by the book,” including the emergence of the sales manager at just the right moment. Nevertheless, after a session with that utterly unfamiliar finance manager, the cube was ours.
Still, I was uneasy about owning a new car, even though this one was leased rather than purchased outright, and we set up the lease in my wife's name.
Sometimes, when you obtain a new product, you start using it right away. You can't wait to light up that iPad, or plop onto that brand new couch. Not this time. After driving it home, the cube largely sat idle for several weeks.
Shakeout Cruise Through Familiar Terrain: A Case for Common-Sense Motoring
Cars are typically temptresses. Innumerable buyers rush to find an excuse to take their new vehicle on a trip, as quickly as possible.
Yet, some of us are more hesitant. We like to ease into new things, not rush them headlong into everyday use. That's even more likely if the recently acquired item is something we haven't ever owned before.
Clearly, a lengthy trial run was needed not only by the cube, but also by its owner (or more accurately, lessee). Except for taking it easy for the first few hundred miles, cars themselves don't need vigorous break-in periods, as they did in the old days. It was essential to get past the trauma of the transaction, and turn the new model into a used car.
A weekend trek from the Chicago area into Michigan's lower peninsula—a trip taken many times before—would be just the ticket. Along the way, we could ponder the advantages of driving a strictly practical, thrifty (but cute) economy car on the highway, versus a bigger and/or more luxurious model.
Few cars are as easy to drive as the cube—or as much fun, provided you don't expect or crave superheated performance. Agile and at least mildly athletic, the cube maneuvers quite expertly. Steering feels as confident and direct as that experienced on some cars that cost many thousands more. Despite its high profile and slab sides, too, the cube is surprisingly unaffected by crosswinds unless they turn seriously severe.
Americans typically shun subcompacts, certain that they're underpowered. In reality, the cube zips eagerly along, keeping up handily with traffic. What more does a reasonable person need? Four cylinders, after all, are enough to get you practically anywhere without particular fuss—despite the pleas from V8 fans who think there's no such thing as enough power. Europeans, in contrast, tend to favor finesse over brute force, unlike Americans with their burly V8s and oversized SUVs.
Inside is plenty of space for two, plus a reasonable load of luggage, with ample room for two more folks in back if wanted. Americans also crave space with something approaching passion, unlike Europeans and Asians who are accustomed to smaller cars, smaller homes and apartments—even smaller meals.
Except for a bit of odd behavior from the CVT as the cube slowed to a halt, our journey yielded no concerns whatsoever.
Scenic Drives vs. the Interstate
Interstate 94 in southwest Michigan is considered a relatively dull route, though it's quite attractive enough in a woodsy way through some segments. Perhaps more important, just a few miles off the Interstate are plenty of historic towns, quaint buildings, scenic views, and unusual sights.
The eastbound route begins with the Chicago Skyway and adjacent Indiana Toll Road, with their exquisite vistas of Lake Michigan and notorious views of what's left of the northwest Indiana steel mills. Today, the mills that once employed thousands have diminished dramatically, while gambling casinos dot the Indiana lakeshore—bisected by the ever-popular Indiana Dunes. In the southwest corner of Michigan, the lake is dotted with small communities that have long served as summer residences for wealthy Chicagoans.
At Benton Harbor, I-94 turns directly east and becomes less compelling—unless you escape from its high-speed, multi-lane confines. Countless billboards point out the scenic and commercial delights that could be yours if you take the next exit.
Traffic on U.S. 12, which practically parallels the Interstate, moves a lot slower but is a lot more interesting, with attractions that range from a winery to an antique car museum. Just about every Interstate has a comparable parallel alternative. Yet, few of us depart the Interstate at any of those opportunities, unless it's for a quick restroom or fuel stop. So, we'll never know what we missed by sticking to the Expressways and shunning the smaller roads that still dot our nation.
Rain and time constraints precluded much of the possibility on this cube trip. Yet, we did manage to reach one of our favorite towns. Situated just over halfway to Detroit, historic Marshall has a downtown section filled with elegant Victorian-era residences that demand slow driving-past and frequent stops to take in all the architectural details. Sounds like a job for the cube, which was photographed in front of several of Marshall's elaborate homes.
Ordinarily, the drive from Chicago, through northwest Indiana and into lower Michigan is pleasant enough, if uneventful. On our return trip, the little cube behaved and performed admirably in a driving rainstorm, as darkness fell and visibility declined. Roads under construction, severely narrowed to the point of strangulation by concrete barriers like the westbound Indiana Toll Road on this occasion, can become more treacherous than twisting two-lane treks through the high mountains of the southwest.
More than a year earlier, on a January drive back from the Detroit auto show, a stretch of Michigan's I-94 had turned into a wicked challenge. En route to Detroit, we'd trudged through snow-packed pavement, with traffic coming to a halt as the Interstate turned super-icy. Finally moving again, we'd encountered jackknifed semis and lost count of the vehicles that had slid into the ditch. Overall, that trip took twice as long as usual.
At one point on the way back, we were directed off I-94 by State Police and sent on a 15-mile detour along snowy two-lane roads. Shortly after returning to the Interstate, the pavement suddenly metamorphosed into a layer of traction-less ice. Soon, what do I see when glancing at the rearview mirror? A little red compact hurtling toward us, spinning wildly. Steering a bit to the right, out of the oncoming vehicle's path, we were able to fend off a collision. Moments later, that compact was off the road.
Barely a minute later, the mirror abruptly displayed the back end of what looked like a brown Buick, headed right toward us and picking up speed. This time, by stepping slightly on the gas, we avoided being hit by the out-of-control sedan. After a moment, that one spun around again and, virtually in an instant, wound up halfway across the snow-covered median strip, facing the wrong way.
That day, we were driving a Volkswagen CC with 4Motion all-wheel drive. Regardless of the overall merits and demerits of that vehicle, it earned a bright gold star from us for its meritorious service upon treacherous, midwestern ice. Fortunately, our new cube didn't have to face such a dreadful challenge.
Defying the Demographers
According to Nissan marketers, we shouldn't be in this cube at all. Why? Because we're way too old to fit into the target market, which consists largely of 20-somethings. Same with the Scion xB, Kia Soul, and Honda Element. Oh, the marketing mavens acknowledge that some mature folks will be attracted by the practical virtues of these boxy little vehicles, which are so easy to enter, as well as to drive. But a look at their ads and their media presentations reveals that what they're pining for is the youth market. Some seem almost shocked to discover that youngsters aren't quite clamoring to buy, whereas oldies are showing up at dealerships, cash in hand or credit at the ready.
Sure, dealers will be pleased to sell one to a person who doesn't fit the demographic profile. But that doesn't mean the marketing folks will be eager to talk about that model's appeal to elder buyers.
Disabled drivers are even more ignored and dismissed than oldies. Outside a local restaurant several days before our shakeout cruise, a trio of folks with multiple sclerosis loved the cube. Invited to slip into the front seat, one woman marveled at how easy it was, compared to her own compact crossover SUV.
Many folks say they want something different, whether it's an automobile or some other commodity. When buying time rolls around, though, most of us revert back to the traditional, the standard, the ordinary. Even when something unique is offered, we typically shun it in favor of the familiar.
After a lifetime of driving second-, third-, and fourth-hand cars, it's still eerie to have that new cube sitting outside. Even though I drive brand-new cars regularly, possessing one has a far more intense impact.
My wife’s concern is different. She fears that when the 39-month lease is up, the cube might no longer be produced, and an alternative might have to be found. One dealership employee suggested that cube sales fell short of expectations because some people think it "looks goofy." Well, one person's goofy and strange is another's cheery and charming. They know not what they're missing.
About the Author
James M. Flammang is an auto journalist and author, and the editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com).
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