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Ranking the Best Boxy Cars (Updated with video!)

First of all, I’m excited to say that this is article #100 on Off The Throttle! Woo! Perhaps I should make a top 10 list of my favorites so far. But that can be another day. For now, let’s talk about boxy cars that look a little bit like toasters.

For those of us, me included, who have a real thing for the sleek lines and purring engine of the modern sports car, the idea of driving a car that looks like a cardboard box might seems a little bit odd. After getting behind the wheel of one, though, I have to stay my opinion has changed.

Unfortunately, no one has really ranked the four boxy cars on the market today, so I’ve pulled together some information that might help change your opinion too. I’ve ranked them from least-greatest to greatest, so you’ll have to keep reading to find out which one I like the best.

Here are some of the Best Box Shaped Cars on the Market:

  1. Honda Element
  2. Kia Soul
  3. Nissan Cube
  4. Scion xB

Number 4 – The Honda Element

honda element best boxy cars

The Honda Element has been one of the most easily identifiable boxy cars since it first hit the road in 2003. It’s compact, easy to drive and has a ton of cargo space — around 70 cubic feet — once you lay the back seats down flat. Unfortunately, when it comes to boxy cars, the Element leaves a lot to be desired.

When the car was released in 2003, it was geared towards a younger, sportier generation of drivers —specifically, the single 22-year-old males of the world who enjoy extreme sports and traveling.
It has the lowest mpg rating of any cars in its class, getting barely 20 combined for models equipped with a manual transmission and 22 combined for automatics. While better than most other SUVs and not too bad when gas prices remain in the low-two-dollar range, that mpg rating is still a major reason that the Element sits at the bottom of my boxy car list.

Only three things make the Element even worth a second glance. Luckily, these three things are top priorities for a semi-successful car. First: the roominess. The young, extreme-sports loving driver could stash two mountain bikes along with the passengers in the backseat. You can fold up the seats against the sides and sleep on the Element’s floor, which is totally flat. Heck, you can even fit an entire drum set in there, if you’re musically inclined and your bandmates need a car to haul the gear.


All of this roominess is achieved through easy access. The SUV’s rear doors swing a full 90 degrees backwards. The back tailgate is split down the middle — the bottom half folds down like a normal tailgate while the top half folds up like a trunk.

Next: the price. The base 2003 DX model started at $16,000 and the top-line EX model started at $19,000, which means it’s pretty cheap to purchase used Elements these days. Still, the only added amenities you could get on the priciest model were less tacky-looking body panels, a decent stereo with an MP3 jack and four-wheel drive.

The last thing that stands out about the Element is the way it drives. Who knew a box could handle so well? It has 160 hp and can go zero to sixty in 8.7 seconds, which is impressive considering its heft and tiny engine. The huge windshield provides visibility and a driving experience like no other — you feel like you’re watching yourself drive on a TV screen. The car even includes a shifter much like the one found in a Civic Si — only you’ll feel like you’re driving a Civic Si dressed as a USPS van.

Don’t buy an Element if you’re looking for high-end interior toys. The stock version comes equipped with basic power accessories and an AM/FM radio. The inside is about as basic as you can get and looks similar to a UPS truck. The floors are made of scratch-resistant urethane, but it might as well be plastic.

It might not seem so radical now, but Element drivers have reported that the car attracts attention from other motorists — and not the good kind of attention. They laugh, they smirk and they make fun of you for driving such a dorky-looking car. Luckily, it doesn’t even come close to the boxiness of the Nissan Cube.

Still, the world is a much different place than it was in 2003. Boxy cars are the norm now. What once made the Honda Element stand out now blends it in perfectly with the other cars on the road.

Trust me, there are far worse cars you could be driving for looks.

If you’re looking for a new Honda Element, you’ll be disappointed — Honda hasn’t put out a new model since 2011. However, the cheap used price is still a reasonable excuse to check the Element out.

Number 3 – The Kia Soul

kia soul best boxy cars

The Kia Soul is a fantastic little station wagon with a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that puts out a respectable 130 horsepower and comes equipped standard with a six-speed manual transmission.

Those willing to pay a premium can upgrade to a 2.0-liter four with 164 horses, which is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The larger powerplant makes a noticeable difference when passing on two lanes and during freeway driving.

The Soul’s fuel economy is quite a bit better than the Element, clocking in at a pretty decent 27 mpg thanks to the smaller engine. Like most other boxy cars, it’s got a great amount of interior space, both for hauling cargo around and for chauffering your friends. Once you lay the seats down, you’re looking at about 75 cubic feet of cargo space.

While cargo is a snap for the Soul, it should be noted that its relatively narrow hips discourage attempts to fit an adult into each of the Soul’s three rear seats. Two is enough, unless you’re transporting small children, which is a more likely task for the Soul anyway, given its youthful target audience.

You won’t be winning many drag races (particularly with the 1.6) and the brake pedal is lacking in communication, but suspension manners try to make up for the unsporting stop and go. A capable chassis makes the compact but spacious Kia easy to drive in crowded city streets, but ride quality can suffer over bumpy pavement with the upgraded larger wheels.

While it’s no luxury car, the Soul does benefit from solid build quality. Inside, Soul drivers are treated to soft-touch materials that are on par with, or better than, most competitors in the segment. Instrumentation is thoughtfully placed and easy to read, and the lofty roofline contributes to excellent visibility.

Ergonomics are generally good, too. Kia even went as far as to space the pedals well, so you can heal-and-toe while channeling your inner funky gerbil.

Where the Soul is lacking is in accessories, though, it’s once again a step above the Element’s stock options. With the Soul, you at least have the option for things like satellite radio and keyless entry. There’s also a gimmicky adjuster for the power steering that allows you to select between comfort, normal and sport settings.

Six standard airbags help the Soul earn a five-star NHSTA safety rating, with two front airbags, two in the seats and full side-curtains as well. New for 2016 is a rear-view camera, which should make parking a snap and help make those around you as safe as the occupants on your Kia.

Beyond the somewhat spartan standard offerings, Kia makes additional bells and whistles available through options packages for the Soul. Most of the add-ons are unlocked by stepping up to the mid-level Soul + or top-end Soul ! (pronounced “Exclaim”).

Spring for heated and ventilated leather seats to add some upmarket appeal to the cabin, or a panoramic sunroof to let backseat passengers take in the view. Keyless entry, which should probably come standard, is also an option. Fully decked-out, you’ll be looking at a $26k Kia, but it’s not likely many leave the lot in this state.

If you’re feeling affluent and want to help save the planet, there’s an electric version of the Soul available, as well.

The zero-emission plug-in boasts a 93-mile range that will be well more than most users require in town, and is second only to offerings from Tesla. More prohibitive than range is the price of the electrified version, which is around $32k. Although help from government incentives can lower the price, you’ll still be spending money that would buy a top-of-the line combustion engine model.

While the extra accoutrements are nice to have, they defy the Soul’s real party trick: Offering cheeky, youthful style and practicality in a $15k package. Add to that Kia’s 7-year, 100,000 mile warranty, an offering similar to the one that helped make Toyota the world’s largest automaker, and it’s no wonder you see so many square Kias in urban centers.

The Soul may ride a little rougher than some of the other boxy cars on this list, but it’s still a pretty nice, moderately priced entry to the class, which is why we recently named it one of the best cars for college students.

Number 2 – The Nissan Cube

nissan cube best boxy cars

The Cube may have the silliest name ever created for a boxy car, but there’s a reason it’s No. 2 on our list. The Cube, with its 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, has the best gas mileage of any of the boxy cars on the market, getting a whopping 28 mpg combined for models equipped with an automatic transmission and 27 mpg combined for those who prefer a stick.

The Cube comes in two styles: S and SL. The S models come equipped with the basic accessories that you might need: alloy wheels, power accessories, air conditioning, etc. The SL has all that and more, adding in features like larger wheels, keyless entry and automatic climate control.

Inside, the Cube is solidly built, if a little quirky. Its earth and moon-themed gauges pair with a concentric ring styling motif that appears everywhere from the headliner and cup holders to window frames. Ergonomics are good, with simple, easy-to-use controls falling nicely at hand.

what is this thing?

what is this thing?

Seating arrangements can easily accommodate the big and tall, and while the manually adjustable front seats might lack side bolstering to support you during spirited drives, they are the perfect solution for long highway jaunts, thanks to comfy cushioning.

Road manners from this boxy car might not win any races, but the Cube will get you effectively from A to B. Acceleration and lateral grip are slightly less than the competition, but in a segment more concerned with practicality, most drivers won’t be hot-shoeing through corners anyway.

Making up for the lack of power, the Cube’s suspension is perfectly adapted for its role as an urban cruiser, with plenty of travel and the right damping to soak up potholes. Even though stopping duties are carried out by drums in the rear, the Cube offers a firm brake pedal and stops nicely. Its manual transmission is refined compared to competitors, as well.

Electrically assisted power steering makes parking the Cube a snap, and one of its best tricks is in fact the ability to turn a circle in an impressive 33.4 feet.

The Cube doesn’t match up with some of the other entries in terms of cargo space. Once you lay the seats down, you’ll only find about 60 cubic feet of space, but when compared to a lot of other cars on the market, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Accessing the space is accomplished using a rear door that features a handy detent two feet into its travel, in case you parked in a tight spot.

Even though Nissan has only recently brought the Cube to the USA, the economy model has been available in Japan — and a huge success — for many years. Perhaps Nissan knew that Americans wouldn’t appreciate this practical model’s quirky mannerisms.

Evaluated simply as a vehicle, and not a styling exercise, the Cube is a great choice for lots of people. A well-built, efficient and safe ride that offers room for four and all their gear for around 15 Grand, the Cube is the perfect formula for the first-time driver or anyone who’s not a lead foot and just wants a practical ride that won’t break the bank.

Number 1 – The Scion xB

2015 scion xb best boxy car

There’s nothing quite like the purr of a Scion xB’s 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, one of my personal favorites and the unequaled top of my Boxy Car list. I might be a little biased, since I own one (pictured above) and you can see my full 2015 Scion xB review here.

The xB may not top the list in terms of gas mileage, coming in at a lower but still respectable 24 combined mpg, but it makes up for it in pretty much every other aspect. One category it definitely tops is the accessories. Standard equipment includes the basics like air conditioning and cruise control, as well as a top-of-the-line Pioneer sound system and Bluetooth connectivity. The RS 10.0 model include all that and more, adding things like rearview cameras and wireless smartphone charging to ensure you’re always connected.

Once you fold down the seats, you’ve got a delightful 69.9 cubic feet of storage space, easily rivaling most of the other entries on this list. Even if your car is full of people, you’ve still got a great amount of storage with 11.6 cubic feet behind the seats, and a number of under-floor storage bins that are designed to be used when the car is occupied.

Overall, while I prefer the Scion xB myself, if you’re looking for a boxy car of your very own, there’s plenty out there for you to choose from.

Or you could just make the smart choice and pick the xB. It’s up to you!

Scott Huntington

Author Scott Huntington

Scott Huntington is an Automotive YouTuber and writer who loves cars, sports, and business. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington or email [email protected].

More posts by Scott Huntington

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Andrew klompenburg says:

    It doesn’t say how old you are so Im guessing, you must be 60 years old. I think a great feature in vehicles is to be able to camp in them and you rated the element #4. I spent a month driving down the west coast to the tip of Baja. I couldn’t have done this in the other 3 cars mentioned. My dogs also found it comfortable. When the dog hair gets to much I just open the doors and take a leaf blower to the back. Parts are cheap, gas mileage decent, and resale AWESOME! Try finding a low mileage Element at reasonable cost. Not easy. Where the scion and kia are plentiful with low miles.

  • This is a great post about the boxy cars. However, I would rate them differently. The Soul would be for sure No. 1 boxy car. It actually the only boxy car that still exists, so it’s a true winner.

  • Sal Zane says:

    Greetings Mr. Huntington: Your “facts’ are somewhat self serving but facts none the less. I presently own a Honda Element SC and am curious as to why you did not include this model in your review. As you are biased towards Toyota I have a slightly more open mind (being older) and tend to favor Honda for various reasons. I assure you Honda is not fourth in any manner and I suggest you re educate yourself and put your biases aside. My rating would put the Honda Element SC welll ahead of the Scion and time is my judge. Honda will outlast Kia, Nissan and easily outclass Toyota among the younger crowd. The Scion is the only one that can in fact be compared to the Honda and is not quite as well thought out as the Element. I could give you independent specs on performance etc and we both could find self serving evidence to prove our points of view. But for you to give Honda fourth indicates a lack of intelligence on your part and I am offended by this. I would put my Element up against your Scion any day and objectively out perform and out class you any day of the week.

    • Greetings Mr. Zane: Your “facts’ are somewhat self serving but facts none the less. I presently own a Scion xB. As you are biased towards Honda I have a slightly more open mind (being older) and tend to favor Scion for various reasons. I assure you Scion is not fourth in any manner and I suggest you re educate yourself and put your biases aside. My rating would put the Scion xB welll ahead of the Honda Element and time is my judge. Scion will outlast Kia, Nissan and easily outclass Honda among the younger crowd. The Honda is the only one that can in fact be compared to the Scion and is not quite as well thought out as the xB. I could give you independent specs on performance etc and we both could find self serving evidence to prove our points of view. But for you to give Honda first indicates a lack of intelligence on your part and I am offended by this. I would put my Scion up against your Element any day and objectively out perform and out class you any day of the week.

  • Sal Zane says:

    Is this all you got? A regurgitation of what I have said. You sir are truly an American moron that has even less class than I gave you credit for. Answer one question: why did you not include the Honda Element SC in your review? May I suggest because you could not deny the truth?

    • Ok, I’ll play along and answer honestly.

      The SC isn’t that much different, and isn’t worth writing a new section about, in the same way that I didn’t write a totally different section for the first gen xB.

      Additionally, for you to comment twice and then send a separate email about this totally unimportant ranking is quite comical, and my friends and I have enjoyed the laugh.

  • martin says:

    It’s unfortunate that the XB is disappeared , especially as the fix of 4 speeds transmission would have been able to be solved by adopting the cvt and the 1.8 liter motorization of the Japanese model the Rumion .

  • Austin says:

    The Element is easily the most versatile. Of the 4. This comment is a little late i know but we all can agree that the Element is for a more outgoing type of crowd. Whereas the Kia Soul and Scion Xb are for the more normal day to day city drivers, They aren’t engineered for versatility or practicality, They are just normal. They have regular doors, The seats don’t fold up and overall they are just a box shape, offering really none of the amazing features that makes people buy box vehicles. They also just don’t have that rugged look that some people purchase the Element for.

    On the other hand you have the Element. It is truly one of a kind, it has everything you mentioned above. Some of the things that you have mentioned, such as the interior being boring is certainly a matter of oppinion but if i were to throw my two cents in, I’d say that the element wasn’t designed to be a luxurious technology loaded vehicle. The interior was designed around ruggedness, ease of use and innovative concepts. It was also designed to be used as a bed, If you fold down all of the seats of the Element you have yourself a perfect camping vehicle. I don’t think the others could do that. It’s just little features like that.

    Also the split tailgate. The botom and top half of the rear hatch separare allowing for a pickup truck like perfect tailgating experience. And the lack of a center console was implemented to make more room for said bed and equiptment you might need to haul. The plastic floors were implemented for ease of cleaning them, Seeing as the target consumer for it was active people who might get a lot of mud and sand inside of the vehicle.

    I am a 19 year old male and an owner of a 2003 honda element Ex and i can safely say i fall into the target consumer albeit a few years younger. But it is an amazing vehicle, very well thought out. Everything they chose while designing it has a purpouse, mileage isn’t anything to complain about either. I drive A LOT and i have to fill up about once every 2 weeks and i don’t even have the stock wheels or tires on it. It also just has that rugged offroad look to it (thats why the side pannels are colored grey). Just throw on some 15×8 -13 rims and your good to go.

    In conclusion I’d say that the element offers MUCH more than you gave it credit for and most of these other vehicles (soul, xb and don’t even get me started on the cube lol) in terms of practicality and usefullness. Of course there are many other things i didn’t mention but you can get the idea. With that being said, we are all entitled to our own oppinions, hope i didn’t offend anyone.

    • Angus says:

      50 year old here with a 2008 Element SC. The other 3 don’t compare in Design and versatility. I have actually fit a variety of small motorcycles (Kawasaki 100 and others) and scooters / mopeds in the back of the Element, standing up and secured using Bungi cords to the D clams on the floor and to the supports the seats clip into on each side. (The seats were out when I transported these bikes / scooters)

      I drove the Xb before I bought the Element and, it felt like a toy. The Element felt like a real car. I am guessing the reliability is the same but the Element was more versatile with the way the rear seats can be configured and how much cargo it actually holds.

      The SOUL was not available when I bought my Element but I have driven one a few years ago. Less cargo room and less versatility but still okay. Reliability thought is probably not going to be that of the Honda (Or the Scion). The Honda K24 VTEC engine is far ahead of the Kia engine.

      I also drove a Cube as well. My local Honda dealer is also a Nissan Dealer and when my Cube was in for the airbag recall, I test drove a Cube. I liked it. It’s very FUNKY. I like the wrap around window on the one side. It’s not symmetrical and it just looks SOOOO Japanese. But function wise, here in Chicago the potholes would eat that thing up with those little tires and I would not trust the CVT version. The 5 speed is probably more reliable and equal to that of the Honda and the Scion. It was not as comfortable as the Element.

      One last thing, The Element SC has an awesome 7 speaker stereo. 2 tweeters, 4 regular speakers, and a big 8″ or 10″ Subwoofer up front. It’s still a factory stereo but one of the best factory stereos you will ever find in a $23,000 car.

      The only thing that is a bummer about the element is, the SC offers NO sunroof and the EX and LX that have sunroofs, only have it on the back, .No sunroof over the drive.

  • Elle says:

    Having finally sold off my 99 outback i’ve been pondering this issue myself. Always having dogs, I’m tired of vehicles with rugs and upholstery that hold fur. The only reason I haven’t gone for an Element so far is the cost of a used one has been high because they became trendy (and I can’t bear to give up my 94 civic vx that gets almost 50mpg.) One thing you neglected to point out about the Element it is the seats all fold down into a flat bed and are also easily removed. While I liked the Outback better overall- drives like a car, packs like a van, built like a tank- having had one that blew head gaskets every 80k miles was disheartening, and I don’t trust the claims that the head gasket issues are now in the past, or I’d think seriously about a Forester. (and wondering why it wasn’t included in the article. Fairly boxy, AWD, and cargo space. Perhaps you might update the article and include something like the Transit Connect.

  • Beatrice says:

    The Scion XB rules by far! Great headroom, sleeps well good “pick up and go” I love this car and hate the idea of ever parting with it. I’ve been the proud owner since 2009 and have not had an issue with the motor or anything. Only basic maintenance and tires for nine years. That rocks my budget and belief in my not so boxy toaster of a ride.

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