Just like Huey Lewis sang in his hit tune from the 80’s, (Not sure who Huey is? He’s the guy who sings the theme song to the stellar comedy Pineapple Express) it truly is hip to be square, and we can thank the forward thinking folks at Toyota, Nisan and Kia for the resurgence of un-cool.
I’ve devoted the last few LA Rides to hybrid and electric cars and we all know the major players by now, but what I’d like to point out is that not all “green” cars are hybrids, and in these tough economic times one does not have to pay Prius-prices to drive an economical and earth-friendly car. Maybe the car you already own is the greenest car, being that it has already been built and is doing fine, but if you’re in the market for a brand-new ride, here are the best of the boxiest.
Tiny, quirky and overtly square cars have been around for years but the trend really got going late last century in Japan. With its narrow, gridlocked streets and strict top speed limits, thus negating the need for swoopy aerodynamic styling, Japan is a land that not only craves space-efficient tall-roof, boxy cars they’re also a car culture that admires cute and quirky as much as we Americans used to lust for big toothy grills and tons of chrome. That is until 2004 when Toyota in their infinite wisdom launched the youth-brand Scion in the USA. The boxy Scion Xb sold far better than the more average looking Scion Xa to Toyota’s surprise, and hell, even America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks drives a custom-made all-electric Xb! In 2008 the second generation Xb was unleashed with a larger engine and a more typical, less boxy look. Sales dropped for the sleeker version, proving that some Americans are looking for quirky after all.
Now in 2009, we have an entirely new sub-class of economical boxy rides to choose from. The Honda Element with its center-hinged “suicide-doors” is a cult fave as is the aforementioned Scion Xb but here are a few of the best, and latest, editions to the boxy brigade -- and one of which I think is going to change the landscape of the American highway forever.
NISSAN CUBE: ART IMITATES LIFE
The Nisan Cube has been around in Japan since 1998 where it has a cult following, but we in the USA can be proud that our premiere version is the greatest Nissan Cube so far. With a trademark boxy-quirk, this time a tad melted around the edges in an almost art-deco way, there is nothing like it on our roads. The car itself is based on the dependable Versa but with its tall roof it will never be mistaken for Nissan’s cheapest little sedan. The interior of the Cube is designed to mimic the integrated, soft look of a five person Jacuzzi and the Zen vibe of a stone being dropped into a still pond is reflected everywhere you look, from the cup holders, the rice-paper-look sunroof to the ripple-effect ceiling. Easily archiving over 30mpg with the automatic and optional lightweight electric-all-wheel-drive, the 1.8 liter four cylinder is no powerhouse but it does have enough grunt to ferry you, your gear via its elegant swing-open rear tailgate, and four of your hippest pals in head-turning style With a low enough price for first time buyers, or just smart ones, the Cube is built for real world needs but it also brings something else to the table, personality and exotic looks at a less than exotic price. MSRP $13,990 - $19,370 www.NissanUSA.com
KIA SOUL: THE ANTI S.U.V
If the Nissan Cube is the station wagon of the future, than the Kia Soul is the Jeep Wrangler of Generation Twitter, or whatever they’re calling themselves this news-cycle. With it’s sloped roof and tall three-box styling, the Soul is a city SUV with a look that says, “I grew up in the back seat of my moms SUV and I will not go back there again!”. Think of the Soul as a Mini Cooper for those who need more space or who crave that riding-high feeling that comes from an SUV.
With two engines available, a tiny 1.6 liter four cylinder, and a punchy 2.0 as an option, the Soul gets great gas mileage while at the same time offers almost unlimited options for customizing your very own Soul from mild to beyond wild. Over the years Kia (and their parent company Hyundai) have grown from cheap econo-box providers to world class manufactures who offer solid, exciting well-engineered cars at realistic prices with industry leading financing and warrantees. With four doors, the Kia Soul could very well unseat youth favorites from Scion, Nissan and Honda but just you wait until the two-door, topless edition of the Soul arrives next year. Called the Soulster, like roadster, it seems poised to replace the Jeep Wrangler as the top down, wind in your hair adventure mobile of the next decade. MSRP $13,300 - $16,950 www.kiasoul.com
TOYOTA IQ: THE FUTURE IS ALMOST NOW
We’ve all seen the Lilliputian Smart Car by now, and in my neck of the woods they are almost common. Up until very recently the Smart was the best mini-city-car you could buy worldwide, but it has one fatal flaw -- it only has seats for two. Now, if someone could only make a Smart for four then that would be for me, you say? Well, Toyota has heard your cries and now they want you to meet their latest mini-car, and it seats four, but it’s just as small as the Smart. Not possible? Well, Toyota has figured out a way to make it work buy relocating the engine and the fuel tank to under the car instead of at each end. The IQ is marketed in America under the Scion brand, but don’t think it’s only for hipster DJ’s. It’s actually the little run-about some of us have always dreamed of. A commuter car that gets hybrid-like gas mileage and is the easiest thing to park since you rode a Bigwheel – with a price under fifteen grand to boot. Use your IQ during the week, leaving your dream car for just for fun, or choose the IQ as your sole transport and save the planet while zipping around in the coolest/cutest thing on four wheels since the debut of the Mini Copper. The IQ coupe is just the beginning as Toyota promises an all-electric version, and even a sporty cabriolet is in the works. Look for the IQ to start hitting the streets in early 2010. MSRP $ about $15,000 www.toyota.com
And thus we come to the end of another installment of LA Rides, but prepare my pretties for a never-before subject around these parts -- scooters, electric bikes and all the other non-car alternative-green vehicles that could replace the four-wheeled commuter car as we know it. Coming soon……
See you on the Big (and now) the Little Screen,