Maybe it’s televisions shows like The Big Bang Theory (we heart you, Penny) or the success of films like Star Trek (we heart you too, Leonard Nimoy!), but the whole idea of being a bit of a square has become hip again – bust out the pocket protectors and horned-rimmed glasses, y’all! For its part, the auto industry’s taken the trend literally of late, launching a variety of boxy machines that specialize in quirky style and utility all within a compact footprint.

With the arrival of Toyota’s youth-oriented Scion brand into Canada and its cubic xB, we thought it was high time for it and a couple of other geometric all-stars – the Nissan Cube and Kia Soul – to face-off to see which represents the most box for your buck.

There are a lot of common threads running through our three competitors: all start in and around $18,000, all are four-cylinder and front-wheel drive, all measure near four metres in length and all offer five-doors. Perhaps most interesting, all have a particular knack for offering up a full roster of dealer-installed accessories, from decals and rims, to firmer suspension and exhaust systems.

One thing we do want to make clear before proceeding: Though we decided to rank our trio of contenders here, there is no definitive ‘losers’ per se. That’s not a cop-out, it’s just that beyond their basic boxy forms, these machines will likely appeal to divergent Canadian buyers. One man’s shipping crate is another man cleaver, cubic conveyance, if you will…

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“…driving performance is obviously not the focus here, just comfy cruising.”

Dialling back to our Big Bang Theory quip, if Sheldon Cooper had an automotive equal, it would be the Nissan Cube. A brilliant machine, that’s unabashedly nerdy. The shortest of our trio and wearing Japanese anime-inspired styling, it’s arguably the quirkiest transportation on Canadian roads today – see the asymmetrical rear design, rippled headliner inside and refrigerator rear door for just a few examples.

Priced from $17,398, the Cube had the smallest engine of all out testers, a 1.8-litre DOHC four-cylinder delivering a lowest-in-this-test 122 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque. The Nissan was the only competitor using a Continuously Variable automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is standard), which actually did an admirable job of making the most of the available muscle. As far as CVTs go, Nissan’s Xtronics are the industry’s best and helped make the Cube the fuel miser of our trio.

On the street, the Nissan offered the plushest ride and was the only tester stuck with rear drum brakes, so driving performance is obviously not the focus here, just comfy cruising. Not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your preferences.

The Cube fell behind in three key areas: First, driving comfort is just okay, with flat, unsupportive seats and no telescoping steering; Second, because it’s the smallest of our bunch, the Nissan’s rear seat was a tight space; And third, and most important, the cargo area was compromised. There’s a usable amount of space for day-to-day living, but the seats don’t fold flat likes its rivals.  

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“…it just goes to show how hard Seoul is pushing to be considered a top-flight automaker. Kudos.”

Technically, the Kia wears the lowest sticker price of this gang at $15,795, but that’s for the model with a lowly 1.6L engine and only a manual gearbox. The Soul begins to get, err, soul at $19,495 when the more powerful 2.0L ‘four’ is bolted in, along with a four-speed automatic transmission. Official output sits at 142 hp and 137 lb-ft or torque, right in the middle of our test group. Surprisingly, the government fuel economy numbers of 6.5 L/100 km city and 8.6 highway, seemed a tad ambitious compared to our perceived results.

Here’s something that may come as a bit of a revelation: The Soul undoubtedly wears the most contemporary styling and best materials inside and out of this bunch, plus our test drivers were split over whether it or the Toyota offered the better driving position. That’s surprising given the extra years of experience the Japanese have over the Koreans, but it just goes to show how hard Seoul is pushing to be considered a top-flight automaker. Kudos.

That said, the Kia’s driving manners do show a lack of experience. While the Cube and Scion stay linear the harder you push, the Soul feels spritely under normal conditions, but turns to Kimchi if you try for any sporting driving.

The Soul’s cargo cave is a strange affair, too. There’s considerable underfloor storage and the seats fold mostly flat, but the small hatch opening and high liftover height do compromise its carrying ability versus rivals. What’s more, with the seats up, Yours Truly could not fit our baby stroller in flat, meaning a new family looking for an inexpensive, hip ride may have to head elsewhere. Oh, and the speakers that pulse red in the doors to the beat of the music? How about no, Kia?

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“…a point we’re sure Scion execs are going to shudder about: This would be a great car for older drivers, too.”

So the new kid on the block takes the crown. The fresh-to-Canada Scion xB tops this comparison test because it has a knack (which Kia and Nissan will undoubtedly find annoying) for doing everything just slightly better than its rivals. Driving manners? Better composed. Cargo area? Largest. Rear seat? Roomiest. Powertrain? Most potent.

The xB uses the same 2.4L four-cylinder as the Toyota Corolla XRS, making 158 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque – quality numbers for the compact class, plus its four-speed automatic transmission is the only one in our group with sequential-shiftability.

For a base price of $18,270, the Scion comes with gear like tilt and telescopic steering, Bluetooth and a Pioneer audio system. From here the “Japanese lead sled” as one tester called it, can add a whole slew of baubles and bolt-ons (rims, sway bars, exhausts, shifters, etc.). We’ve now tested the xB with both the standard and the firmer TRD sport suspension and like how you can basically order the car to your ride preference. Bonus: it has the longest wheelbase of our group for a less jouncy ride and a wide-open interior.

That brings up a point we’re sure Scion execs are going to shudder about: This would be a great car for older drivers, too. It’s really easy to get in and out of, has a smooth ride, enough room for the grandkids, acres of luggage space with the rear seats folded and good fuel economy, all backed by Toyota’s (usually) solid quality. A pensioners dream, no?

Our issues with the Scion centre around its styling inside and out, which are surely not to everyone’s taste and more importantly how its price rises to a heady $30k once you start loading gear onto its plain-Jane base beginnings (though so does the Cube’s and Soul’s).

So, when it comes to today’s totally square compacts, this xB bento box is the one to beat.

Nissan Cube
Price: $17,398 – $23,098
Engine: 1.8L, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission: 6-spd manual / Continuously Variable Transmission
Fuel efficiency: 7.3/6.3 L/100 km city/hwy (39/45 mpg) (CVT)
Dimensions (L/W/H): 3980/1695/1650

Kia Soul
Price: $15,795 – $21,895
Engine: 1.6L, 4-cyl, DOHC / 2.0L, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission: 5-spd manual / 4-spd auto
Fuel efficiency: 6.6/8.5 L/100 km city/hwy (43/33mpg) (2.0L auto)
Dimensions (L/W/H): 4105/1785/1610

Scion xB
Price: $18,270
Engine: 2.4L, 4-cyl., DOHC
Transmission: 5-spd manual / 4-spd auto
Fuel efficiency: 9.5/7.2 L/100 km city/hwy (30/39 mpg) (auto)
Dimensions (L/W/H in mm): 4250/1760/1590