WHAT IT IS: In total, 20,000 Nissan Figaros were manufactured and all of them were made in 1991. Sold exclusively in Japan, it was a “halo” car for the brand and was met with widespread critical acclaim. Originally, Nissan was only planning on making 8,000, but consumer demand led to a raffle to allow buyers the opportunity to purchase one of the additional 12,000 units that were planned. It is based on the Nissan Micra (called the March in Japan), which is a car never sold in America because of its small size. They actually still sell the Micra today, so if you spring for a cheap rental car in Europe or Asia, then there is an OK chance you’ll get a Micra.
The Figaro is powered by four-cylinder, turbocharged, one-liter engine that produces a sizzling 75 horsepower and 78 lb-ft of torque. Paired with a three-speed automatic transmission and a curb weight of only 1,790 pounds, the little Figaro can actually do a top speed of 106 MPH.
But this car is not about speed or ride quality. It is about one thing: smiles. It is impossible to not smile when you are near this car. The wonderfully retro looks cause any negative thoughts to just float away. The Figaro is all about the design details and the fleur-de-lis symbol is everywhere inside the vehicle from the door handles to the toggle switches to the rear view mirror cover. You weren’t paying for performance, you were paying for style. The Figaro was also only available in four colors, each a pastel shade, which were each paired with a season. Emerald green (spring), pale aqua (summer), topaz mist (autumn), and what my car is painted, lapis grey (winter).
The Figaro is a fixed-roof convertible, much like the modern Fiat 500, so the convertible top leaves the side pillars connected and the canvas top folds down into a rear trunk. While this gives a feeling of safety, I’m fully aware that the Figaro would be a mere pinball between the latest Tahoe and F-150.
The Figaro is also right-hand drive, which is surprisingly easy to adjust to. Visibility is great, but the turn signal and wiper arms are flip-flopped and take some getting used to. And with the Figaro’s small size, a drive-through meal is still possible by just leaning over across the passenger seat.
I’m sure you are now wondering, “how did it end up in my hands if it was never even sold on this continent?” The answer is that it came here on a boat. I didn’t personally import the car, but I bought it from an importer down in Alvin who regularly brings in Japanese cars to resell. The United States will effectively let you import whatever car you want from overseas if it is more than 25 years old. With the Figaro being closer to 30 years old, it passed right through without a problem and I have a Texas title. Insurance was even easier, as there are several options for collector car insurance that pay out a stated amount in a wreck and you agree to a low number of miles each year. I’m paying about $350/year for 3,000 miles and a stated value of $12,000.
That is the other interesting thing about Figaros: they aren’t particularly expensive. I bought mine through the auction website carsandbids.com in late September for $7,250, but it needed a decent amount of interior work and had almost 100,000 miles on the odometer (well, 160,000 kilometers). It has been a fun project for my wife and I to fix it up over the last few months and now we’ve got the perfect weekend car.
Lots of people actually import cars themselves from Japan. In almost every situation, a specialty broker is used to help bring a car in, but you can shop the car auctions in Japan and there are several companies to help you bid on and transport the car right to the Port of Galveston or Freeport. There is a whole world of quirky cars that you can import if you are willing to put up with the hassle of the process. If you are desperate to specifically own a Figaro, there is a dealer in Virginia called Duncan Imports and Classics (duncanimports.com) that has, and I am not exaggerating, 111 different Figaro for sale. Some are as cheap as what I paid, but some stretch to $40,000 if you want a perfect example with low miles.
MPG: 32 MPG
Price: $13,651 original MSRP ($26,905 in 2021 dollars)
Wrap-up: I don’t expect the Figaro to be a great investment, but I don’t expect it to lose a single penny of value, either. I chose it because I read about how they were simple to work on, affordable and I loved how it looked. Many of the parts are shared with some US Nissan models so I’ve actually ordered a few parts right from a local dealer. Do I recommend buying an older JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car? Absolutely, but you’ll need to be handy mechanically and good at Googling stuff. Surprisingly, I’ve actually ordered most of my replacement parts from the UK where the Brits have been able to import the Figaro for more than a decade and a few specialty shops sell anything you need to fix up your Figgy.