Want to turn heads? Skip your favorite 1950s finned fantasy and bypass the muscle car you’ve longed for since high school. Don’t even think about that high-horsepower exotic car shaped like a door wedge. What you really require is a 1991 Nissan Figaro.
A trend setter
Cuter than a basket of puppies, the Figaro is notable for predating retro-styled cars from Volkswagen, Ford, Mini, and Chevrolet.
Debuting at the 28th Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, under the theme “Back to the Future,” the Figaro joined the Austin Mini-like Nissan Pao, the pun-intended S-Cargo van, and the period-styled micro Nissan Be-1. Response was so enthusiastic, Nissan launched Figaro sales in Japan on Feb. 14, 1991. Limited to 20,000 units, Nissan officials expected demand to outstrip supply. They were right. Figaros were delivered, using a lottery system, in three allotments: an initial 8000 units, followed by two batches of 6000 cars later in 1991.
What buyers received was a two-seat convertible coupe built on the Nissan Micra K10 platform, a banal economy car never sold in the U.S., but offered in Canada.
Timelessly appealing design
Styled, according to Nissan, to convey “a delicate feeling of stylish elegance in everyday life” while satisfying “a zestful desire for a good time,” this cutie’s charms puts you, your passenger, and every onlooker in a good mood. It’s a happy little car, one that timelessly pays tribute to vintage Italian, French and Japanese microcars. It’s remarkably ageless, retaining its bouncy charisma despite being 27 years old. Best of all, the top folds into the trunk so that it doesn't detract from the Figaro's voguish lines—although the side rails and rear roof pillars remain in place.
Notably, the Figaro’s front fenders are made of a thermoplastic resin to save weight and resist corrosion. It comes in four colors, one for each of the four seasons: Lapis Grey for winter, Emerald green for spring, Pale Aqua for summer, and Topaz Mist for fall. Name your car accordingly.
The inside story
Inside, the white interior and seats are covered in leather with contrasting piping. A special paint is used on top of the dashboard to make it feel soft, while a flat instrument panel places two large chrome-trimmed dials in front of the driver. The left one is the speedometer with smaller inset gauges for fuel and engine temperature; the right a tachometer with a small inset clock.
The climate controls feature a chrome back plating, four sliders, and Bakelite-style knobs that resemble flower buds. The AM/FM radio is mostly useless stateside since it was engineered for Japanese frequencies, but there is a cassette deck for your INXS tapes as well as a CD player.
What’s it like to drive?
A 1.0-liter turbocharged version of Nissan's four-cylinder engine generates 76 horsepower and 78 pound-feet of torque through a three-speed automatic transmission; a manual transmission wasn’t offered. The chassis employs McPherson struts up front and a four-link coil spring suspension at the rear. Steering is rack and pinion, stopping is courtesy of front ventilated discs and rear drums.
Unless you regularly drive diminutive cars, nothing prepares you for the Figaro’s size. If you’re trapped in traffic and the only shortcut is across the golf course, you’ll find the Figaro easily fits on a golf cart path. Trust me on this. Yes, it’s a very maneuverable city car. If you can’t parallel park the Figaro, you should be walking.
And its city car cred goes beyond size. After all, if you’re an urban dweller, style matters as much as anything, and this car has it in spades. The Figaro’s granny-thin steering wheel is on the right side of the cabin, meaning its turn signals are on the right-hand stalk, and the windshield wipers are on the left-hand stalk. So when it’s raining, you’ll turn off the wipers when signaling a left turn. Charming? Hell yeah.
Once underway, however, you’ll quickly discover the Figaro’s economy car roots. Power is a relative thing. Off the line and poking around town, you’ll find the Figaro has perfectly adequate power, but little more. Flooring the throttle requires patience to reach highway speed, but given the engine and road noise, a long distance road trip is not idyllic anyway. The Figaro’s quick, agile manners are more a function of size and weight than true sporting dynamics, and there’s the expected body lean through corners, but it’s not excessive. And don’t dream of adding dubs; standard wheels are 165/70 R12s.
You won’t notice; you’ll be smiling and giggling at the car’s charisma. This car has that effect.
The Figaro’s biggest allure is its cuddly vintage style, modern amenities, and reliable Japanese mechanicals.
“It’s more reliable than the older cars it harks back to and it looks as if it runs on milk, not gasoline,” says Dave Kinney, publisher of the Hagerty Price Guide. Kinney advises to look for rust, which he’s seen on many samples.
Naturally, there are dealers who specialize in Figaros, including Duncan Imports & Classic Cars of Christiansburg, Virginia, which supplied the test car. Expect to pay closer to $20,000–$25,000 for one in mint condition with low mileage, although it’s not unusual to find a well-worn Figaro at less than $10,000 on sites such as Bring-A-Trailer.
Kinney doesn’t expect the Figaro to see noticeable price appreciation, although you should be able to sell it for what you paid for it. “It’s the perfect fifth car to have,” he says. “There’s no real reason to own one other than it’s the perfect beach car.”
Price, 1991: 1,870,000 yen / $16,960 ($31,570 adjusted for inflation)