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.
Number 4 – The Honda Element
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
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
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.
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
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!