When an automaker sets out to gain market share in a specific segment, it will usually launch a new ad campaign or offer discounts and other incentives on the model it’s looking to promote. Nissan Canada is a bit different, though. When it wants to gain market share, it goes racing.
Nissan Canada recently invited AutoTrader out to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in Bowmanville, Ont., to sample the automaker’s Sentra Cup car, a turn-key racer that serves as the basis for the automaker’s Sentra Cup race series. The Sentra Cup is the spiritual successor to the Micra Cup, a similar one-make race series that was put to pasture when the ultra-affordable subcompact car was discontinued at the end of 2020.
Speaking to AutoTrader trackside in Bowmanville, Nissan Canada President Steve Milette said the decision to launch a second one-make race series using the Sentra was driven by the success of the previous Micra Cup, along with its desire to claw back some market share from increasingly stiff competition in the compact sedan segment.
“I’d say the learnings from Micra was very successful,” Milette explained. “It was a strong racing circuit to bring new racers into racing in general, and we saw a lot of them progress to bigger circuits. And we also connected really well with our customer base, which was at the onset what the whole point was.”
“As we moved out of Micra Cup and we had the new Sentra being launched, we felt from a sales opportunity perspective [that] the Sentra has always done OK in Canada, but on pure market share, we were a two to three per cent segment share player,” he added. “So fairly small, and we felt that we needed to really beak through, and this was one of the ways we could showcase the quality, dependability, reliability of the car.”
The Sentra Cup car is based on the entry-level Sentra S trim level and features the same 149-horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine as the road-going model, which is linked to a six-speed manual transmission. Other modifications include adjustable coil over suspension, an adjustable front anti-roll bar, larger 355-mm front brake rotors with four-piston calipers and lightweight 18-inch wheels with series-spec Pirelli slick tires. There’s also the usual racing safety equipment, including a six-point roll cage, a fire suppression system and a racing seat with a harness.
With Sentra Cup race winner Valérie Limoges riding shotgun and giving us some pointers, we headed out on track to see what this lightly modified Sentra can do. After a couple of feeler laps to learn the track layout and warm up the tires, we began attacking the corners with more speed, with the seemingly endless grip of the Pirelli slicks inviting us to push harder and harder. What the Sentra Cup lacks in power it more than makes up for with cornering grip, inviting drivers to carry speed through corners, rather than scrub it off using the brakes.
That said, the brakes are impressively strong, and took some getting used to for our road car-adapted brains. Despite its mild 149 hp engine, this race-ready sedan has the same beefy front rotors as Nissan 370Z. With big stopping power, slick tires, and low power, we found it easy to over slow the car in the approach to the corner, however, this impressive braking performance is key to making this entry-level race car feel accessible to young or inexperienced racers.
While driving a race car may be out of reach for some, Nissan is making sure that its customer base doesn’t miss out on the fun. Just as it did with Micra owners and the Micra Cup, customers that purchase a Sentra will be invited to attend the race weekends free of charge. This helps Nissan Canada connect with its customer base and, as an added bonus, show some appreciation for these buyers.
“Our learnings from Micra was people wanted to come out, and people wanted to see what their car can do on the racetrack because it was same car as their car, and they wanted to experience what a racetrack was all about,” Milette said. “The fact that they’re invited by their OEM to attend some of these events, it just adds to the pride of ownership of their vehicle.”
The 2022 Nissan Sentra Cup season kicked off on Victoria Day weekend at CTMP and will continue when the series heads to Montreal to serve as a support race for the Canadian Grand Prix the weekend of June 17. The series will host a total of six races in Ontario and Quebec this year, with the season finale taking place at Circuit Mont-Tremblant on September 23 and 24.