I am a card-carrying member of the “slow car fast” club, so it takes about half a lap to fall for the Sentra Cup Car.
I’m piloting this unlikely race car around the development track at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, a tight-and-twisty 1.8-mile-long (2.88-km) collection of corners that can unravel even well-sorted road cars. Beside me in the stripped-out interior sits Valérie Limoges, one of the drivers (and winners) in the Sentra Cup, a Canadian series that puts pilots in identical sedans around some of the best tracks in the land.
The best part? This turnkey race car can be yours for less than the average new car price. Yes, really: for $41,000 CAD ($31,662 at today’s exchange rate), you could join the lineup. Over two dozen Sentra Cup cars have already been built.
Ahead of the 2022 season opener, Nissan Canada invited media to CTMP to sample the Sentra Cup Car. It was a multidisciplinary lesson, showcasing the marketing value as well as an affordable entry into honest-to-goodness racing … not to mention made us pine for a Sentra Nismo inspired by this poised little race car.
Because race car
What turns the unassuming Sentra into a loud, grippy race car? That’s the work of Motorsports In Action, a shop in Saint-Eustache, Quebec. MIA brings in the base-model Sentra S, complete with six-speed manual in Canada, and then goes to town removing weight from the interior. An adjustable coil-over suspension drops the Sentra over wide 18-inch alloy wheels, wrapped in bubblegum-sticky 265-width Pirelli slicks. Peek behind the thin spokes up front and the 370Z’s 14.0-inch (355-millimeter) brake rotors fill the space. The rear axle adopts the brake discs from the Sentra SV, and MIA swaps in stainless steel braided brake lines.
There’s far less done to the engine, which remains the same 2.0-liter found in every Sentra. There’s a cold-air intake, cat-back muffler, and MoTeC ECU, but Nissan quotes the same 149 horsepower as the road car. Both the engine and the transmission are feature stiffer urethane mounts.
On the track
Helmet on, HANS device secured, and enough acrobatics to make me regret not doing yoga in the morning, I’m installed behind the Sentra’s quick-release steering wheel. The view ahead isn’t too different from the road car, except it’s from roughly where my clavicle would normally be, as the OMP race bucket is mounted super-low. A bunch of bare metal throughout the back half of the cabin amplifies the throatier exhaust note and, once we’re underway, every small pebble pinging off the wheel wells. The Sentra Cup is super serious.
Limoges instructs me to ease into the run, starting with a sighting lap to build some heat in those wide tires. Even at these gingerly speeds, the Sentra naturally rides a lot stiffer than a regular road car. Nothing quite prepares me for the first heavy braking zone, the larger rotors and sticky rubber working in tandem to test my four-point harness. A genuine manual transmission is a rarity on a race car these days, and this one has a light clutch and short throws. Rowing up the ‘box is easy, but a slightly notchy 3–2 downshift repeatedly catches me out in the braking zones.
Once up to speed, the Cup can be flung at apexes with impunity. Compared to the outgoing Micra, the Sentra’s longer wheelbase and wider stance makes it a more predictable steer. That’s a boon for newer drivers, and promises crowd-pleasing close racing action. Mosport’s DDT is tight enough that the car only ever kisses fourth gear on the main straight. With each consecutive lap, I’m on the brakes less, relying on the tires’ sheer grip to scrub speed on turn-in. The Sentra is all about conservation of speed, forcing the driver to think long-term, since power won’t mask mistakes. It’s a thrilling pursuit, slowly ratcheting up corner entry speed, or waiting ever later to stand on that middle pedal.
Before I know it, my time is up, and we’re back in the pits. My first thought is how to convince Nissan to sponsor me for a season. The second is how unfortunate it is there’s no sportier version of the road car than the six-speed Sentra SR. The latest platform is obviously a very good base for a fun yet forgiving race car. Retune the suspension, fit a good set of performance tires, and drop in the Rogue’s new 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder, and a Sentra Nismo could easily mount a challenge to the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen Jetta GLI.
Race on Sunday, sell on Monday
Nissan isn’t taking the Sentra racing purely for the thrill of it all. Like so many race cars throughout history, the goal is to increase foot traffic at dealerships. The Sentra Cup Car’s obvious road-car roots can speak to the inherent reliability of the platform; if it can handle the rigors of a race weekend, the daily commute should be a piece of cake. That’s the logic, anyway.
Beyond that, it’s a way for the brand to engage with existing owners. Just as it did with Micra Cup, Nissan offers free race admission to Sentra owners. In fact, at the season opener at CTMP, Nissan invited owners onto the track to drive a parade lap behind this year’s pace car, the 2023 Z. You don’t get that with any other compact car.
There are currently no concrete plans for a US series. That being said, the previous barrier—the Micra was never sold in America—is no longer an issue.
The 2022 Nissan Sentra Cup season continues this weekend, where the series will serve as a support race for the Canadian Grand Prix. There will be a total of 12 races this season, including the season finale at the gorgeous Circuit Mont-Tremblant September 23 and 24. You can catch all the action on the series’ Facebook and YouTube pages. The race car costs $41,000 CAD, and race weekends start from $1,350 CAD—proof you don’t need a fortune to get a real racing experience.
Become an AutoGuide insider. Get the latest from the automotive world first by subscribing to our newsletter here.