I own two of these wonderful little boxcars, so I can speak about this with some authority.
The likely reason for this car’s junk status is, as others have said, a CVT failure.
Nissan CVTs of this era are particularly fragile. It behooves the owner to install an aftermarket auxiliary cooler to out-of-warranty examples. Also, you have to do transmission maintenance not just by the book, but more frequently than the book specifies. My owner maintenance handbook calls for a transmission flush every 60,000 miles. I do it every 30,000 as a precaution. Knock on wood, nearing 100,000 miles I haven’t had the first hiccup from my transmission here in relatively hilly Tennessee.
My cube being a 2010, it thankfully is covered under the 10-year/120,000-mile extended transmission warranty. But my wife’s is a 2014 and is not covered. Some folks have told me there were minor changes in the transmission’s design after 2010, but I can find zero evidence to support that.
And yes, the job to replace a busted CVT is about $3,000 to $4,000 depending on your shop’s labor rate. Typically, they don’t rebuild these. They replace.
The other thing that takes out cubes prematurely — and this may surprise some — is piston slap. (All rights reserved to our beloved Sajeev.)
The Nissan MR family of engines is kind of famous for this. Do a search for “Nissan Versa piston slap” and read owners’ tales of knocking engines, particularly when cold. The cube’s MR18DE — also found in the first-gen Versa Hatchback — was particularly famous for this. I had always thought my engine had a pronounced tick, especially when cold, but I did not read about this problem until recently. Word from folks who have had short blocks replaced (some under warranty) is that the #3 cylinder is usually the culprit.
The solution to the piston slap is to let it die a slow, agonizing death and then replace with an MR20DE out of a similar-age Sentra. It’s a plug-and-play upgrade — you can even keep the cube’s stock ECM. Most sources say the MR20DE was more reliable and less-prone to the piston slap problem that plagued the MR18DE. Bonus for those who do the engine replacement is a slight bump in power that comes with the 200cc extra displacement. The block is physically the same size and uses the same motor mount locations.
So I’m going to inspect my spark plugs closely when they come due for replacement in about 6,000 miles (Nissan specs a 105,000-mile replacement interval on the stock plugs) and if I have any signs of serious combustion problems on one of the cylinders, then I have a decision to make: Either dump my 2010 cube while it still runs reasonably well and isn’t burning any appreciable oil between service intervals, or start saving for an MR20 swap.
I would try the MRA8, which is the current-gen Sentra’s stock engine, but I’m not completely sure it’s a direct swap like the MR20. Nobody has done it yet, that I can find, and I don’t want to be the guinea pig when we’re talking a couple thousand bucks in engine and labor.
Anyway, if I have that problem and I spend the money to do the engine swap, then I *still* get to worry about the CVT lunching itself at any given moment. So as much as I love the cube, most signs are pointing to “sell” by the time it’s 10 years old.
By the way, other maintenance on the MR drivetrains tends to be pricey, too. My timing cover has a slow oil leak. Nissan wants $1,800 to replace it, because it requires replacing the valve cover gasket and the front main seal, according to the service tech. Spark plugs require removal of the intake manifold, transforming what should be a one-hour job into a four-hour job. There are multiple reports of ECM failure online for these engines — which is nearly as expensive as a CVT failure, I’m told.
I’m just lucky that between reviewing cars part of the year and having a short drive to the office, my annual mileage accumulation is about 6,000 to 8,000. If I were putting on 15,000 miles a year and depending on this car every single day, I’d already be leaning toward “sell” after seven years.
I hate the thought of getting rid of it. It’s been a phenomenal, weird little car that brought both of my sons home from the hospital and ferried us to many great memories. It has brought us a lot of joy, inasmuch as a car can bring joy into our lives. But I can’t justify throwing that kind of engine or transmission money at it. I’d rather get something else and take a small monthly car payment than live with the uncertainty of a drivetrain that may choose to cost me thousands any given day.
Perish the thought: I have an irrational love for Fiat 500s.