Yes, we’re all contemplating reasons to move to Canada. There are already some pretty compelling reasons to do so: pervasive politeness, Timbits, and far more likable national leadership (for now). But really, you want a Nissan Micra Cup, which is the most hilariously good little race car I’ve driven all year.
[Full disclosure: Friend of Jalopnik and master of Micra Cup crash-fu Brian Makse invited me up to Mosport to try out his car. When he discovered his brakes were toast after its last race of the weekend, Nissan Canada offered some track time in one of their cars, the No. 2 of Nic Hammann. I also had the use of a Sentra press car for the few days I was around Toronto, which came with a tank of fuel.]
Micra Cup pits a small herd of spec Nissan Micra racers against each other in sprint races best described as madness with some engines involved. It’s a hilariously fun series with evenly-matched cars going at each others’ throats.
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It’s also the lowest, most accessible rung of what’s technically considered pro racing, allowing mad little hatchbacks to upstage the likes of Formula One or IMSA when Micra Cup runs as a support series.
This year’s season included 16 races in eight race weekends. This included a weekend at Mosport, where I got to see Micra Cups do what they do best: lift wheels, rub fenders and dice like their lives depend on it in one of Canada’s cheapest new cars.
The Car Is As Fun As It Looks
Let’s be perfectly honest here: this is still a humble Nissan Micra, the small micro-hatch that happens to be sold in Canada but not the U.S. There isn’t a lot of power, and what there is goes right to the front wheels. It’s softly sprung such that it leans into corners far more than you’d expect, though not so much that you ever really feel as if you’ll tip over unless one side is in the air.
But it’s also stripped down and stiffened with a (shockingly strong) bolt-in roll cage and slightly beefier suspension. The end result was a total hoot on Mosport’s smaller Driver Development Track, where I finally got to drive the little race car I’d been envying from afar.
The lack of power makes it a surprising challenge to drive fast. It’s easy to look at low-powered race cars and think “gosh, I could do that,” but the reality is that you’ll really, really feel it if you don’t nail a corner exit perfectly as you power down onto a longer straight. (Especially when you get passed by someone in the exact same machinery.)
With just 109 horsepower and 107 ft-lbs of torque, the Micra doesn’t have a ton of low-end power, so my instructor kept telling me to get on the throttle sooner than I thought physically possible in a front-wheel-drive car—and stay there. There wasn’t a need to gently roll into the throttle as you would with a more powerful car. Because most of its weight is in its nose, you need to accelerate quickly to transfer more of the car’s weight to the rear wheels in order to keep the rear of the car stable coming out of a turn.
This need to get on the power and commit to leaving your foot pinned early felt weirdly similar to driving a Porsche 911, except it was much more forgiving if you accidentally lifted your foot.
Likewise, I was being way too hard on the brakes. Many turns only require a light graze on the brakes in the Micra Cup. In fact, braking too heavily sometimes only served to unsettle the rear of the car due to its soft suspension. The Micra Cup’s rear end was surprisingly and delightfully lively, eager to step out whenever I was a bit too aggressive behind the wheel.
It’s this playful, forgiving nature that makes the little Micra Cup perhaps the best thing I’ve driven all year. There’s something attractive about conquering a car that wants to wrap you around a tree at all times, but sometimes you just want to drive something that lets you goof around and experiment with milder consequencies that are easier to recover from.
You can make quite a few mistakes in the Micra Cup without ending up in a wall. Its soft suspension and low power don’t just tap you on the shoulder to let you know you’ve borked it, but rather, they seem to scream those mistakes back to you. As an entry-level series car, it’s perfect. To me, this fun-size race car was the source of much giggling.
So, how true to stock are these cars? Very! The race cars are all converted base-model Micras. The lights, wipers, and climate control still work, although there’s no air conditioning. The crank windows are still intact. The radio would work if the speakers were still there. The turn signals worked, too—well enough for us to use to signify point-by directions on track.
Each car comes with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission, all sealed by the series to prevent tinkering. The steering feels decently communicative, the shifter glides into place nicely and has a decently short throw, and the pedals are light but get the job done. The teeny spec Pirelli dry racing tires squeak like angry hamsters at their limit.
The Nismo S Tune springs, dampers and anti-roll bars actually come from the Japanese-spec Versa Note Nismo. Braided steel brake lines and upgraded race pads are the only modifications to the braking system. Without a lot of power, the lightweight Micra just doesn’t need heavy-duty brakes.
The little Micra four-banger’s sound has been improved by a cold air intake and an exhaust that’s been modified from the cat back as well.
The rest of the modifications, such as the racing seat and harness, fire extinguisher, kill switch, window net, steering wheel, and tow hooks, are for safety.
As far as adjustments go, tire pressure and alignment are all that’s really left up to the racers. Teams can add data and radio systems, but those are really the only modifications that are allowed. As someone who would rather spend time driving than building and tweaking, all of that sounds wonderful.
Cash Left Over For Delicious Timbits
The United States may get the similar Mitsubishi Mirage, but there is no Spec Mirage racing series. Micra Cup doesn’t race here because we don’t get the Nissan Micra, so you really do have to go to Canada to race one.
At $9,988 Canadian ($7,470 U.S. at the time of this writing), the humble Nissan Micra is Canada’s least expensive road car. For just a little more than the price of two Micras, $22,900 Canadian or $17,122 U.S., you can get a fully-prepped Nissan Micra race car, ready to race. Considering how expensive race cars can be—even the humble Miata Cup car costs $53,000 here—it’s a fantastic value.
Sure, we have the B-Spec category in the United States, which is similarly close racing with slightly more powerful race-peanuts, but to find a B-Spec car for the same price, you’re likely looking at used cars. Then you’re on your own to get it built to the rules.
Meanwhile, all of the Micra Cup cars come pre-built, and the series won’t even let you build your own—just to ensure they’re competitive with each other.
Bring This Here, Eh?
While I’m always down for a Canadian vacation, the United States should take note. Small, tossable cars are the best, and not just because they get great gas mileage. They tend to be insanely fun to drive, so long as they’re light and simple. In other words, there’s no way that the idea of throwing roll cages into subcompacts won’t be awesome.
The easiest way to make a car cool is by racing it. If you don’t want Americans to look at small cars like a bunch of cheap penalty boxes, take them racing. Feature them doing fun stuff. It can’t hurt.