Over the last few months we have seen a large influx of JDM cars thanks to Brian Jannusch and International Vehicle Importers opening up shop in St. Paul, MN. One of the first cars he ever sold up here was this Nissan Pao (pronounced: Pow), sold to Hiep Dang of Pristine Detail. While unlike the Suzuki Alto at Proving Grounds, which resulted in me being blown up like the surface of Scarif with questions, the Nissan Pao seems to have a following of people who vaguely remember seeing it in Gran Turismo 4. I don't want people feeling like this is some secret kept within only the Japanese car community so we gotta ask... What's the deal with the Nissan Pao?
So first off the Nissan Pao is many things, but it is not a Kei Car, like many people assume without seeing it. If you park a Pao next to the Alto we spotlighted a few weeks ago, the Pao will look absolutely mammoth (ie: parking a Focus ST next to a Fiesta ST). The car is in fact a sub-compact which is the same class as most of the cool hatchbacks ever made; Honda Civics prior to 2001, Volkswagen Rabbit, Ford Fiesta, Dodge Omni, Mitsubishi Mirage, Fiat 500, etc. Furthermore, the chassis it is based off was called a Nissan March which, outside of America, it's known for it's own hot hatch variants. The variants of the March we would receive would be the significantly less beloved Nissan Versa and the secretly cool Nissan Cube.
When Nissan made the Pao, it was at the absolute height of the Japanese bubble economy, a time where wildly inflated real estate and stock prices were at their peak. During this time, all sorts of crazy cars were being produced, cars that would never get green lit today. Nissan was looking to add an interesting sub-compact hatchback to the lineup for it’s Nissan Cherry chain of stores. In Japan, manufacturers have boutique dealerships with unique cars made just for them, the Cherry stores specialized in interesting small cars like the Pulsar and Nissan Cherry X1R. A car like the Pao would draw people in by the mobs.
So in 1987 Nissan commissioned Japanese industrial designer Naoki Sakai to produce a concept car and gave him complete freedom. Sakai is quite the character who at one point was making $300,000 per month selling Japanese tattoo culture inspired t-shirts in San Francisco. He blew all that money and went on to move back to Japan and start a design studio. Sakai was in the belief that design is ideology, meaning that the design you create will affect the ideology of the world around you and that aesthetically pleasing design shouldn't be limited to the 1%. He used that ideology to design a little bit of everything from polaroid cameras to cars. Sakai used his complete freedom to take a normal subcompact hatchback, the Nissan March, and completely redesign it to have a happy, retro look.
There were originally 4 cars which came from Sakai's designs, the BE-1, the Pao, the Figaro and the S-Cargo. Each featured a post-modernistic theme and particularly, the Pao has been quoted as being of the peak of post-modernism in automobiles. The Pao took design elements from the Citroen 2CV, Fiat 500 and Renault 4, then placed them together in a timeless design. The design was so convincing that those not in the know will guess anywhere between 1940 to 2010 for the production date. The car was thoroughly modern with power steering and AC but also featured retro design elements gone from the modern world like a clamshell trunk, flip up back windows, an optional ragtop, exposed door hinges and a plastic dashboard color-matched to the exterior.
When Nissan announced that the Pao was going to be produced, demand outweighed projected production 10 to 1. Not wanting to flood the world with these cars, they limited production to 51,657 and sold out within 3 months. Not bad for a car intended only for the Japanese market.
Hiep's Pao was equipped with a 5 speed manual transmission and carbureted MA10S 1.0L 8-valve L4 engine pumping out a scant 51 HP. 51 MPG city makes that lack of power a lot more tolerable, you have Geo Metro fuel economy figures in a much more aesthetically pleasing package. It even had a convertible rag top, original Fiat 500 style! How does it drive though?
As I had never driven a Pao and I wanted to get a reasonable description of the car, I contacted Hiep to see if we could take it out for a spin. Hiep kindly let us take the car out around the neighborhood near his detail shop in St. Paul. I can report that it drives fantastically! It’s nimble and, so long as you’re in the correct gear, is pretty responsive. The car will break the neck of everyone within eye shot and seems to make everyone happier around it. The car also came with this awesome Japanese toll pass which talks to you in Japanese with a kawaii female voice.
The Pao is easy to drive and feels about 50 years more modern than it looks. I love the modular looking stereo, ashtray, glovebox and climate control. I love how they reference some stillborn base model with nothing in it. The afterthought looking toggle switches for the hazard lights and defroster remind me of cars from the 50s when switches were a thing to behold, not hide.
This car is extremely comfortable too. Somehow, Nissan found a way to have a car which both fits a 5’0” girl and a 6’0” guy without a problem for either of them and you can wear a tophat with the headroom you get too. The only weird part of how it drives is the non-syncromesh first gear and the turn signal indicator is on the right side which causes a momentary pause in action while you look for it.
Right hand drive has this stigma as being weird to get into but to me it feels more natural, within about 30 seconds of taking it on the road everything felt at home. I think I actually prefer RHD. Shifting while in a corner with your dominant hand on the steering wheel just makes sense and bumps in the road have no effect on your driver inputs. If you have your mirrors adjusted correctly the blind spot you have pulling out of a parallel parking spot is not even noticeable and when you get out of it, you’re already on the curb.
What I didn't mention above in the power figures above is that the car weighs 1600 lbs, 10% less than a Geo Metro and roughly the same HP. While it isn't a burnout monster, it does a great job of comfortably getting to speed. The power feels just right actually. If you've ever driven any of the cars that this is inspired by, it's fittingly slow but not to the point that it's dangerous to drive like the original cars were. Frankly that's part of the experience, if it was fast that would just be out of character and likely prohibitively expensive to own. It's designed for getting you through traffic, but it feels much more inspiring than some humdrum lane hogging blindspot monster like a Nissan Rogue. It's as if you're zipping between cars and away from stop signs in a 60's era rally car or a four wheeled version of a Honda Grom.
The Nissan Pao is the perfect solution for someone who wants a fun affordable commuter which is as adorable as it is esoteric. The car's importer, Brian, reported that when driving in a pack of cars including a R32 GT-R and a Porsche GT3RS, all the gawkers curved the GT-R and GT3RS to go look at the Pao. In a world where insurance and gas makes high performance cars undesirable to own for the majority of the populace, a car like the Pao is the perfect gateway drug into petrolheadism. It looks like Naoki Sakai had the right idea when he said "design is ideology."