MIAMI – The angular ’09 Nissan Cube is an aptly named vehicle that’s funky and functional, and looks good even with a side mirror torn off from an accident here.

That happens when a taxi driver fails to pull all the way to the curb to drop off young tourists at a South Beach hotel, and one of them unthinkingly swings open the street-side rear door as the aforementioned Cube passes by.

“I told her not to get out on that side,” the cabbie tells a police officer called to the scene.

Meanwhile, some curious motorists slow down and ask about the Cube, parked and temporarily out of commission. Their comments range from, “What is it?” to “Nice.” (Well, you should see the other side.)

The policeman tells the bemused cabbie about a quaint section of the Florida motor vehicle code: “If your passenger does something dumb, you’re still responsible.”

Then he tells a Nissan North America Inc. representative: “So this is a Nissan? I almost put on my report it was a Scion.”

Ouch.

Nissan folks do not want to hear certain things about the Cube during a press preview: 1.) One has been in an accident. 2.) It was mistaken for a Scion xB.

“The Cube is not an xB copycat,” Phil O’Connor, NNA’s senior marketing manager, says right off the bat at a press briefing prior to the cab-Cube encounter.

And lest anyone think this 156.7-in. (3.98 m)-long, 2,762 lbs. (1,203 kg) little thing is just so adorable, he adds: “It’s not a smiley cute face.” Instead, it’s an expressive low-priced cross/utility vehicle, “with style found on more expensive products.”

The Cube has been available in Nissan’s home country of Japan since 1998, born as a plain box on wheels. The third-generation model still is boxy, but stylists have worked in curves here and there to take the edge off.

Nissan is expanding the market for the new Cube to the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., it enters a relatively hot and quite competitive small CUV segment that is expected to grow from 865,000 units in 2009 to 1.75 million by 2013.

When it goes on sale in May, one of the Cube’s main competitors will be, yes, the Scion xB from Toyota Motor Corp.’s 6-year-old youth brand. A 2007 redo of the xB made it bigger and more powerful than the original.

Toyota calls that progress. O’Connor sees it as an opening. “The xB vacated space the Cube can occupy,” he says. “It got larger, more mainstream and less edgy perhaps.”

But the Cube goes up against more than just Scion. There’s also the all-new ’10 Kia Soul, another spring debutante. In what is either clever or nervy, Kia Motors America sends a caravan of Souls up and down Ocean Drive during the Cube media test drives on the same roadway.

The Cube sits on the Nissan Versa subcompact’s platform. It shares the Versa’s 122 hp 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. engine, which gets the job done but doesn’t go past providing adequate power.

Nissan likens the unusual exterior design to, wait for it, “a bulldog wearing sunglasses” because of the pushed-out wheels and headlight treatment.

Nissan expects that cool-canine look will appeal to a main customer base of Generation Y buyers, age 18 to 25. But O’Connor anticipates a secondary market among the 26-50 set.

“The Cube is more of an emotional than a purely rational purchase,” he says. “The prioritized messaging points are design, self-expression and value/reliability. We feel we can adequately cover both customer groups.”

’09 Nissan Cube
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, cross/utility vehicle
Engine 1.8L DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 122 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 127 lb.-ft. (176 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Compression ratio 9.9:1
Transmission CVT/6-speed manual
Wheelbase 99.6 ins. (252 cm)
Overall length 156.7 ins. (398 cm)
Overall width 66.7 ins. (169 cm)
Overall height 65 ins. (165 cm)
Curb weight 2,762 lbs. (1,203 kg)
Base price $13,990
Fuel economy TBD city/highway
Competition Scion xB, Kia Soul, Honda Fit
Pros Cons
Funky Odd look turnoff to some
Functional Underwhelming engine
Roomy interior Basic driving experience

Nissan even hopes to sell the Cube to some 50-and-up consumers. Why would they want a youth car? Because it’s a youth car, O’Connor says. “But it is a fine line to walk. If you appeal too much to older buyers, that turns off young buyers.”

Then there is the ironic reality that if you pitch cars to youths, you often must side-sell to their parents. That’s because many young people get vehicle-buying advice and financial aid from mom and dad.

Accordingly, some of the Cube’s attributes are designed with the folks in mind, says Al Castignetti, NNA’s vice president-general manager. “We believe the combination of value, fuel economy and safety will be especially reassuring to parents involved in such decisions.”

Talking points aimed at them include a $13,990 base price; 30 mpg (7.84L/100 km) on the highway, with actual EPA estimates to come; six airbags, 4-wheel anti-lock brakes and one energy-absorbing steering wheel.

Nissan’s dealership sales training for the Cube centers on “relating” to young buyers, while also talking safety and such with their parents, O’Connor says. “We think we have developed a good way to hit the highlights with both ‘customers.’”

Despite its fanciful demeanor, the vehicle offers a lot of utilitarianism. That ranges from good visibility due to near-vertical A-pillars and extra-wide windows, to a back door that swings open fully for easy loading and unloading of stuff.

Nissan says the interior layout is like a “Jacuzzi lounge,” a term that creates great imagery but may be stretching it. It’s fair to say the interior is relatively roomy and comfortable, with bucket seats in front and a sliding 3-position second row.

“In some ways, the Cube is like the big cardboard appliance boxes you used to play in as a kid,” Castignetti says. “They could be clubhouses, race cars, forts, whatever your mood and imagination wanted at the time.”

To help seal the deal and get those active youthful imaginations on the road, Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. is extending special programs to provide financing for young buyers.

“We’re talking about people, not with bad credit, but with limited credit histories because of their age; people who may just be getting out of college,” O’Connor says. “We’re offering more flexibility in financing and additional advances to cover accessory purchases.”

An array of more than 40 Cube accessories are available because young people like to customize their cars and auto makers like the extra profits those purchases bring.

There’s also a youth-oriented option package that’s strong on audio equipment, including upgraded speakers and Rockford Fosgate subwoofers.

For the rich kids on the block, Nissan offers an upscale and glitzier version of the Cube. Called the Krom, it costs about $5,000 more than the base model.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com