Putting slick to pavement
at le Circuit de Mont Tremblant, Quebec.
“The Micra is now the cheapest racecar money can buy” said David
“Racing is said to improve the breed”
Nissan, looking to reinvigorate grassroots racing in Canada, launched the Micra Cup this year in the province of Quebec with the highlight a race at Montreal’s le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in conjunction with the Canadian Grand Prix. Here is our report on one of the most unlikely cars ever to put slick to pavement.
It is the cheapest car in Canada; its $9,998 – without destination charge – suggested retail price causing quite a stir when it was announced in February of last year. Mitsubishi Canada immediately started offering a $2,500 “temporary” rebate on its three-cylinder Mirage. Kia upped the content of its bargain basement Rio to ward off a profit-killing price war and General Motors wondered if it would ever sell a Chevy Spark again. Twelve months later, the Micra is a resounding success, helping power Nissan Canada to its best year over year sales growth in history, proving that – and how could there ever have been a doubt – Canadians love a bargain.
Less well known is that the Micra is now also the cheapest racecar money can buy. For less than $20,000, JD Motorsports & Competition – which is running the new-for-2015 Micra Cup racing series for Nissan Canada – will sell you a fully race-ready, factory-certified 2015 Micra S complete with roll cage, slick tires, stiffer-than-planks suspension and a suitably fruity exhaust system so the little devil at least sounds the part.
Hold on a minute, doesn’t the Micra boast but 109 horsepower? Surely that’s not nearly enough for a race car. In fact, it barely sounds like enough to putter over to the local supermarket with any sort of dispatch. Hell, didn’t a Micra win this year’s Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s fuel economy challenge? That sounds more like the car we all know.
In fact, it is the Micra’s very lack of power that makes it such an attractive proposition for those racing with a thin wallet. For one thing, it doesn’t challenge the talent of the nut behind the wheel. While the acceleration may indeed be lethargic, that paucity of power also means Nissan’s tiny 1.6 liter engine is blessedly under-stressed. And, when it comes to low-budget racing, no engine blow-ups means more time racing and less time spending. Indeed, for those thinking of shopping the Micra for more pedestrian duties, know this: Two days of flogging the poor little four-banger mercilessly failed to elicit a whimper or a complaint from Nissan’s HR16DE four, the engine seemingly as comfortable at redline as it is at idle. It’s a fair assumption, then, that the Micra’s 1.6L won’t give you any problems when driving to work.
There are a few weird and wonderful design flaws, however, that the Micra’s engineers could never have anticipated. The Micra was, after all, originally designed to provide cheap and cheerful transportation to and from supermarkets, not bash off curbs on racetracks. Pounding over said curbs often activated the windshield wipers, the force of the bump sufficient to overcome what Nissan’s engineers obviously thought would be a sufficiently strong detent spring for the steering wheel-mounted stalk. I could always tell when I was apexing Corner Three just right because the Micra would suddenly decide it was raining.
And the Nismo suspension can overwhelm the chassis. The stiffer springs MIA adds may indeed reduce body roll through fast corners and dive for apexes like something resembling a race car. But it’ll also weave through high speed corners like Nick Nolte falling off the wagon, the frame never meant to handle the loads those sticky Pirelli slicks can generate. It’s a wonder the little dear doesn’t throw a tie-rod in protest. On the other hand, save for the addition of some tougher pads, the brake system remains completely stock in the Micra’s racing reincarnation. In other words, that’s one more mechanical item you won’t have to worry about on your morning commute.
Indeed, the lesson of the Micra Cup series – besides that racing is just as much fun on a tight budget – is how reliable and thoroughly competent the modern automobile really is. The Micra is, again, the cheapest car sold in Canada, but Nissan’s anti-lock brake system didn’t get overwhelmed by the ridiculous speeds we saw down Gilles Villeneuve’s long back straight, the clutch didn’t fry despite the rampant abuse it suffered and the Micra’s econocar cooling system never overheated even though the engine seldom saw the quiet side of 5,000 rpm. Perhaps more impressively, one poor Lewis Hamilton-wannabe barrel-rolled his Cup car, sending it arse-over-tea-kettle coming in Montreal’s famous hairpin. Though every single body panel was rumpled, he emerged without a scratch.
Racing is said to improve the breed. Sometimes, it just proves its robustness.