Nissan Figaro long-term test: Part 1, a modern classic

Dean Evans
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Nissan's 1991 Figaro, one of just 100 or so in NZ

A used Nissan Figaro isn’t something that commonly pops up in search terms, but it’s a cute, modern classic that holds a unique place in history - and for something a little different, we’ve got one for a long-term test.

We normally swan around in brand new cars, as our job requires and allows, sometimes we like to get away, and drive some quirky cars… and few come as quirky as the Figaro.

Produced in just one year, 1991, the Figaro was part of the unique postmodern retro Pike Car collection, which also included the S-Cargo and the Pao, and was originally slated for just 8000 units. However, it proved so popular that build numbers were not only increased to 20,000, Nissan introduced a ballot for budding buyers to, er, bid on.

While the Figaro was running, a bit too smoky, so towed home

Produced in just four colours, to represent all four seasons, the Figaro’s two-door, fixed roof convertible was designed to mimic 1950s styling but with 1990s running gear: things like the round head and taillights, the chrome bumpers and trim, the plush white interior and roof, classic and chrome-ringed gauges and switchgear, and the wheel covers designed to characterise whitewall tyres… 12-inch diameter tyres! It’s just so cool and retro with “modern” parts like both a tape and CD player, one of the first cars to be fitted with one; which is handy because the conversion from Japanese to New Zealand frequencies can be rather costly.

Like a Fiat 500, the roof pops up and folds back into the upper boot area manually, in seconds, drawing in the sunshine without the buffeting drawbacks of a full convertible. It even seats four, though just two in comfort, with plenty of headroom, and a rear bench seat good for kids… and even then, for rather short trips.

Based on a Nissan March/Micra underneath, front-wheel drive, small capacity, reliable and economical. The engine is a modest 1.0-litre four-cylinder with a turbocharger and just 56kW; so with just 810kg, there’s enough performance to keep it fun and leisurely, with an equally relaxed three-speed automatic gearbox: 0-100km/h arrives in 12.9 seconds, apparently.

While its diminutive size looks like a Kei car, it’s actually 30cm longer than Kei dimensions, and of course has a larger-than-660cc Kei engine, but compared to the likes of Rangers and Hiluxes in NZ, it’s positively tiny! Though huge on heart.

The search for Figgy

When my wife Arna declared her love for the Figaro close to a decade ago, I’d been passively looking for one to join my Pulsar GTI-R, both 1991 turbo Nissans, but almost diametrically opposed.

With prices fluctuating over those years and young kids and a mortgage to cover, planets never aligned until recently, when Figaro NZ club leader Zak put his one up for sale for a very friendly price. Based in Christchurch, logistically and practically it didn’t work out, but he did put me in touch with an Auckland car for sale, which was similarly sound, and advertised for $14,000.

With just 119 currently registered in NZ, they are super rare, though outside Japan, there is also a solid sub-market in the UK, where the likes of the Figaro Shop and Garage FK10 sell new and used parts globally. So that was reassuring.

After identifying a few mechanical issues with the owner of this car, we did a deal on this Pale Aqua (representing Summer), Figaro with 187,000 well-cared-for km on the retro clock.

It needed a little love, with plumes of smoke coming from the exhaust and engine bay, which was concerning, but not terminal. The turbocharger was on its last spins, along with a flat battery, despite being relatively new. With a slightly cautious handshake, we drove away at low speed to nearby temporary storage, until being able to tow it back to Hamilton (thanks Shaun!), for a full diagnosis, fix, and some future plans to make it better and our own over the coming months.

As they say, stay tuned… if you can be Figged.

1991 Nissan Figaro
ENGINE: 1.0-litre turbo petrol four
POWER: 56kW/106Nm
0-100KM/H: 12.9 sec (claim)
GEARBOX: 3-speed auto
WEIGHT: 810kg
ECONOMY: 7.4l/100km


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