It’s hard to get excited by a Nissan Micra, but re-clothe this rather mundane supermini as a retro urban runabout and you can create a level of hysteria usually reserved for cars powered by something rather more exciting than a turbocharged 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine.
Indeed, the Figaro was so popular when it was revealed that Nissan had to run a lottery to choose who would be able to buy the car. The initial plan was to produce 8000 examples, but by the time production was wound up, no fewer than 20,000 had been built – with more than five times this many people having entered the lottery to buy one.
Created for the Japanese domestic market, it wasn’t long before examples of the Figaro were being imported to the UK, the car becoming as popular there as in Japan. More than 20 years after the last Figaro was made, this cute-looking retro machine has become a cult classic and as a result it’s well served by specialists as well as clubs.
That engine, known as the MA10ET, was engineered to provide quiet, refined and economical progress in the Micra, so don’t expect the Figaro to be anything more than brisk progress. But it’s really not about driving quickly, the standard three-speed automatic transmission makes sure of that. Rather the Figaro makes the perfect characterful city car, working just as well in London as in the even more crowded streets of Tokyo.
Which Nissan Figaro to buy?
There isn’t much to separate one Figaro from another, apart from condition and bodywork colour. Just four paint hues were offered, each representing one of the four seasons. Buyers could choose between Topaz Mist, Emerald Green, Pale Aqua and Lapis Grey. The first was the least popular with just 2000 made; 6000 were produced of each of the others.
With all Figaros getting leather trim, a fold-back cloth roof, air conditioning and a three-speed automatic gearbox, there wasn’t much scope for Nissan to offer extras. Incidentally, the Figaro didn’t wear Nissan badges and there was no powered option for the roof mechanism.
A really cherished car will come with a full complement of supplied accessories, such as the original space saver spare wheel, the associated jack, tonneau cover and tool kit. You might even find one with the original red breakdown flare, which is clipped to the left-hand side of the passenger footwell.
Nissan built the Figaro alongside three other similarly retro cars at its Pike factory – the company’s special projects division at the time. The other ‘Pike’ cars include the Be-1 and Pao hatchbacks, as well as the S-Cargo – a small retro-style van. If you like the retro style of the Figaro, then it is worth seeking out these models too, although they are actually less common in the UK.
Performance and specs
Engine 987cc, four-cylinder
Power 75bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 78lb ft @ 4400rpm
Top speed 90mph
Fuel consumption 45mpg
Gearbox Three-speed auto
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 810kg
• There shouldn’t be major corrosion but rust may well be in evidence in the sills and in the lower edge of the rear window surround. The chrome reflectors for the rear lights can also collect water, so check for rust here.
• The most likely area for corrosion though, and also the area that’s the most time-consuming to fix, is the rear wheelarches. If these have rusted significantly, new panels have to be welded in, and that’ll cost you plenty.
• All Figaros got a folding fabric roof, which shrinks over time. Also, the mechanism and latches can get damaged by ham-fisted owners, so make sure everything works smoothly.
• Check that the upper roof boot has a plastic liner and two black straps to hold the roof in place when it’s retracted. Also make sure that the rubber buffers on the floor and spring clips on the inside of the boot are in place.
• Look at the top of the car around the edge of the roof. The leather hood may have started to shrink revealing the black seal. You shouldn’t be able to see more than 1cm of black rubber and there shouldn’t be any gaps. If either of these things is evident, expect leaks into the cabin.
• There’s a tonneau that has to be fitted manually when the roof is retracted, so make sure it’s there. New and used ones can be sourced easily enough, and they’re not costly.
• The engine is generally reliable, but seized turbos aren’t unusual. Because there’s no kick from the turbo (the power delivery is surprisingly linear), it’s easy to assume there’s nothing wrong. Also look for blue exhaust smoke, suggesting a worn turbo or engine.
• Ask when the cam belt and tensioner were last replaced; this should be done every five years or 100,000km (62,500 miles). Crankshaft oil seals also fail, so look for lots of lubricant on the car’s underside.
• The most likely engine problem is overheating, so let the car tick over and listen for the fan cutting in and out. Also make sure the head gasket hasn’t failed because the engine has previously overheated.
• As the Figaro is now more than 20 years old, it’s key to know that the braking system is in fine fettle. Along with the basic checks of brake discs, pads (drums and shoes on the back), and the condition of the pipes, it is not uncommon for the master cylinder seals to wear out, causing spongy feeling brakes, eventually leading to brake failure.
• The standard air conditioning uses the now-banned Freon 12 refrigerant, but it can still be topped up. What can’t be used is the modern R134A alternative, as it’ll damage the system, so beware of cars that have supposedly been converted.
• The brightwork gets damaged and corrosion is common, so check everything, especially the bumpers, as they’re costly to replace.
• Don’t assume that the displayed mileage is correct, as clocked cars are rife in Japan where it’s not illegal to change a car’s mileage. What matters is the car’s condition.
1989: Figaro unveiled at the Tokyo motor show under the slogan ‘Back to the future’. It’s the work of a Nissan special projects group called Pike Factory.
1991: The Figaro goes into production, with the cars being released in three batches between February and June.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and Prices
So, it’s generally reliable, fun and most of all fairly easy to look after. While it might not offer the driving thrills of a traditional soft-top sports car, there’s a lot of charm with a Nissan Figaro.
While there are specialists that import Figaros directly from Japan, which could cost upwards of £8000, a good usable car should come in at somewhere between £4500-6000 in the UK, although prices can be stronger is the car is exceptional or offered by a dealer. There are some scruffier examples about, and neglected cars can be worth as little as £1200 if substantial work is needed.
Words: Richard Dredge