Handling, ride, style, individuality, value and economy
Room for improvement
Needs bigger engine, tinny feel and questionable quality
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS 27/05/2005
ONLY five years ago there was a clear demarcation between light and small cars.
Both categories suffered from a bunch of samey models (this was before 2002's revolutionary Honda Jazz and Mazda2 invaded to really shake the light car segment up, as well as last year's Mazda3/Holden Astra/VW Golf arrivals in the small car class) that stuck steadfastly to formula.
Proton from Malaysia, however, thinks differently. Yet it does to in a way that seems to have made Proton's cars suffer.
Previously heavily dependent on ex-Mitsubishi designs (the 1995-vintage Persona and Satria are really revised 1992 CC Lancers and Mirages), Proton went bespoke with its 2001 Waja, a neat small front-wheel drive sedan that's slightly larger than your average small car.
It was developed with help from the Lotus division that Proton wholly owns.
Ridiculous claims of BMW-standards of quality and dynamics were only matched by VW Golf levels of pricing and a hopelessly small 1.6-litre engine when at least 1.8 litres are the norm. Predictably, sales stiffed big time.
The Gen.2 then is just that, a second-generation independently devised Proton model that slips underneath the Waja.
And like its sibling it challenges small-car thinking. This time by slotting somewhere between a Jazz and Honda Civic in sizing and price.
It also looks like an in-between car, much like the size that small cars used to be up until about the mid-1990s. Stylistically, however, the Gen.2 is a real standout.
The Proton espouses modern taut surfacing with a very European stance and proportion. There's more than a hint of BMW 1 Series rear-on. It's quite a good-looking car. And it comes in funky colours too. Well done Proton.
However, the fastback design's biggest drawback is that it reduces reversing vision to virtually touch parking, and robs headroom for the occupants out back, particularly the hapless centre one that must make do without a headrest. But I'm running ahead of myself here.
Underneath that shapely bonnet lays an engine (called CamPro - complete with a badge on the back) that shows Proton may not really be listening to its critics.
An 82kW 1.6-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine (that produces its power peak at 6000rpm and a 148Nm torque top at 4000rpm) lives there.
And it's quite a lively little unit, loving a rev and producing quite a punch as the needle swings fairly effortlessly (though noisily) to its 6500rpm redline.
If you're in the mood, that's fine, because soon you'll find yourself flying through the gears and speeding well above the limits with little in the way of mechanical or rolling resistance.
But for the other times, when you're plodding along in peak-hour traffic or just wanting to take it easy, the lack of low-down torque for punchy getaways is simply too annoying to ignore.
While not completely torqueless as some other publications might have you believing, the Gen.2's lack of cubic centimetres undermines a potentially rorty, sporty little city runabout.
Which leads to the problems with the test car.
Driveability wise, Gen.2 registration number AA14SI and with 13,000km on the odometer suffered from a fading clutch and a stiff and notchy gearshift.
It was also afflicted with a heavy hatch door, a faulty power mirror switch, a rear left-hand side power window that went up with the speed and ferocity of a guillotine and rattly doors, just for the record.
So the necessary frequent gear changes to keep the car hustling along were marred by a lumpy and tiring shift quality that felt like stirring boiling al dente pasta.
Plus the brakes seemed worn out and beset with too much of a spongy pedal for comfort, although they had no problem pulling the test Proton up once the driver had acclimatised.
Yet there's so much to commend the Gen.2.
For one thing, it seems reasonably economical, even when thrashed about in the manner its engine so obviously requires. A 7.7L/100km average was recorded on the nifty trip computer.
If only the Jazz would ride with the Proton's cushioned suppleness, particularly over larger bumps. The Gen.2 traverses rough roads with gay abandon.
Then there's the nicely weighted and sharp steering, that leads to eager handling, linear cornering and a high degree of roadholding and body control. Keen enthusiasts will be well shocked at how grown-up the Proton is here.
It's enough to give the class-leading Ford Fiesta a fright, and an obvious nod to Lotus' input here.
And then there's the distinctive and laudable interior.
The smart and sassy dashboard design features stylish, easy-to-read instrumentation set up in a sporty, motorcycle-style hooded pod, matched by a vertical lower-console heater/air-con controls that look like they're straight out of a motor show concept car.
Sporty and involving describes the driving position, aided by retro-look, amply padded tombstone seats that are comfortable and supportive. For some, however, the gearshift throws may be too far forward.
There's also adequate seating for four medium-sized adults overall and the rear parcel shelf's use and design is ingeniously simple.
A stylised handbrake, large console box, rubber-lined dash shelving, useable door and front-seat pockets, refreshingly thin three-spoke steering wheel and excellent ventilation outlets are all Proton plus points.
On the debit side there's no exterior hatch door release (totally infuriating!) and tiny radio buttons that are hopeless to decipher at night.
The lack of any glovebox without a compensatory under-seat drawer is just plain silly for a city car. And the rear-view mirrors are just too small for confidence.
Furthermore there's a prevailing tinniness about the car. The doors, though hefty, close with a resonating clang rather than a thud. And the central locking can be heard from the Hubble telescope.
Equipment levels seem right, with dual front airbags, power steering, air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, keyless entry, a (disappointing sounding) four-speaker CD player and a trip computer completing the $17,990 base L-Line model.
For anti-lock brakes and alloy wheels, you need to spend another $1510 for the $20,990 Gen.2 M-Line, and a similar amount for the H-Line, with its side airbags, (almost essential) parking radar, fog lights and rear spoiler.
A four-speed automatic adds $2000.
So the Proton Gen.2 is an enigmatic choice, an individualist with surprising dynamic strengths spoiled by weaknesses that you wouldn't really find in the more mainstream brands.
It seems a further dose of development is necessary before the Gen.2 is really sorted. Rumours are rife that fixes are on their way soon - namely a more powerful and larger drivetrain.
As it stands, between superstars like the Jazz below it and the Mazda3 above, the Gen.2 doesn't quite cut it. But it's a likeable, affordable little lout if you're in the mood to adopt a problem child anyway.