For the first time in…well, ever in North America, Nissan’s performance arm NISMO was given the keys to a hot-selling compact and told to “give it your best shot.”

The result is this: the 2017 Nissan Sentra, and you can tell from a host of visual upgrades that it’s not your garden-variety Japanese compact. We were dispatched to Los Angeles to learn all about it, as well as take a brief turn behind the wheel.

Eighteen-inch smoked alloy wheels (a first for a Sentra); charcoal-coloured grille; aggressive side-sills and rear wings; and trademark NISMO red highlights make for an exterior whose goal it is to attract the younger, import tuner crowd.

Inside, the theme continues with high-bolstered sport seats (with “NISMO” embroidered on the seatbacks, of course); Alcantara suede inserts on the dash, steering wheel and doors; and some more of that NISMO pinstriping that we first saw on the NISMO Juke last year.

The seats, for their part, are fantastically supportive and comfortable even for the wider-hipped among us. That makes for a good seating position, important if you plan on driving the car as NISMO’s engineered it to be driven.

More specifically, along with a turbo four-banger that gets more power than its Sentra Turbo sibling, the chassis has been given a comprehensive once-over. We’re not talking jut stiffening up the dampers and anti-roll bars a little, either (though the rear monotube dampers are unique to the NISMO); the whole platform has been blueprinted to be stiffer from the get-go, thanks to a reinforced floor pan.

The steering has also been modified for better turn-in, and the optional CVT transmission – a six-speed manual is standard – has been tuned to work with the new engine tuning.

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Speaking of engine tuning: power from the 1.8-litre turbo-four has grown to 188 hp and 177 lb-ft, with the latter figure arriving at just 1,600 rpm. That’s a good thing, as when you’ve got a car this light that can carry so much speed into the corners, you want to be able to get out of them quickly, too.

The standard Michelin Pilot Sport rubber should help, or go ahead and upgrade to the even stickier Potenza rubber. In our experience on dry LA tarmac, we didn’t really need any more traction, but autocrossers may think otherwise.

Our time in the car, albeit brief, showed there’s definitely some potential with the Sentra NISMO, though we’re really going to have to put it through a proper test to see how it stacks up against its rivals, which seem to be growing by the month; Hyundai just debuted the performance edition of its Elantra, and the Civic Si debuted alongside the Sentra at this year’s LA show.

The performance compact sedan segment is heating up, and we’re all that much better off for it.