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Car reviews - Proton - Persona - sedan

Launch Story

8 May 2008

CAN Proton actually do the seemingly impossible by zooming up small-car buyer’s wish lists? Stop smirking, because on the evidence of the new Persona sedan, those people out there who seek value, size, style and economy will be hard-pressed to find a better new four-door sedan for $16,990.

There are some minor irritations, a couple of disappointing omissions, and a name that is not synonymous with pleasure or excitement, but the latest, Lotus-engineered Proton small-car is fun, characterful, practical and extremely well priced. And did we mention it was stylish?

European dynamics and Japanese styling at Chinese prices! This is what the new Proton Persona is all about.

Kicking off at an unexpectedly $16,990 for the single, well-equipped model, it is surely set to impress, especially if you’re looking at buying smaller fry like the Holden Barina, Toyota Yaris or Kia Rio sedans, but are really hankering for something more substantial like the Mazda3 or Ford Focus.

The Proton shares a little bit of the brio that makes the latter two a lot of fun to drive, thanks to Lotus input. The Malaysians own Lotus. Lotus develops Protons. And keen drivers on a budget are always better off as a result.

Sure enough, armed with sweet steering responses and a good dose of body control, the Persona will glide through most corners with little fuss or bother.

Yes, Proton admitted that it has deliberately opted for a more comfort-orientated setting with the suspension, so the Persona’s Gen.2 sibling that donated much of the running gear is sharper and less understeer-prone, but the Malaysian car is comfortably ahead of much of the competition as far as being a driver’s device is concerned.

Plus it rides with a nice suppleness, and does a better job in isolating road and tyre noises than any previous Proton – although some rivals like the Nissan Tiida are better than the Persona in this regard.

Under the bonnet is virtually the same 82kW/148Nm 1.6-litre CamPro twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine that you’ll find in other Protons like the Gen.2 and Satria Neo.

Now if we weren’t subjected to petrol being priced at $1.50 per litre, we might complain that 1597cc in a small car is on the meagre side these days.

But the Persona is no fatty at 1250-1275kg. That’s near the same weight as the smaller Hyundai Accent SLX sedan, and we don’t hear anybody complaining about that car’s 1.6.

And the CamPro engine is a smooth, linear revver, blessed with a needle that goes deep beyond the 7000rpm redline without sounding like a valve will pop.

Wring this proper little 1600cc powerplant’s neck, and it delivers. Row the nicely weighted and satisfyingly long-throw five-speed manual gearbox, and there is uniformity at work for smooth progress. The Persona is a pleasure to punt around.

Intelligent gearing seems to have helped the automatic and 1.6 combination work better than the peaky engine’s raw numbers suggest. As with the manual, progress is smooth, eager if you’re willing to plant your foot down a little, and without undue noise or harshness.

The Persona sedan’s interior is much less a work-in-progress than the Gen.2’s cabin that Proton based it on.

As we said when we first drove the Persona in Malaysia last year, Proton has taken the opportunity to fix most of the little annoyances. The fully trimmed and lined cabin now feels much more complete.

Yet there is still that signature Proton simplicity in the smart, Lotus-style instrumentation pods, symmetrical upper console layout, sporty three-spoke steering wheel, vertical heater and vent knobs that have since been emulated by the Yaris, a good driving position, and plenty of room up front.

Now, however, there are now also positions for drinks, phones and other paraphernalia, while – at last – the Persona gets a (fairly small) glovebox, as well as door pockets, cup-holders and more sensible door-sited power window switches.

Adjustable front and rear head restraints, a trip computer, clock, five lap/sash seatbelts , a floor-mounted console and twin rear cup-holders are further additions that poor Gen.2 owners have made do without.

And being a sedan, we especially appreciate the huge boot that is backed up by a split/folding rear seat and one of the largest apertures through which to put larger stuff into the cabin. The rear doors also open big and wide so you don’t hit your head while entering (although people over 185cm might have their heads touching the ceiling).

In the cold harsh light of 2008, however, the Persona’s interior is certainly not class-leading in its presentation and layout, proving that Proton has only just caught up with the rest of the competition.

Clawing some of that progress back are upper console button switches that don’t move enough to let you know if you’ve switched on the rear demister. And the dim ‘on’ light is lost in even dull afternoon sunlight.

Rear kneeroom is tight if taller people are sitting ahead, although there is space for feet underneath the front seats.

The driver’s seat height adjuster is one of those old school knobs that only tilts the cushion back, so that’s pretty useless Proton’s forgotten about the centre-rear occupant’s head because there is no head restraint there and rear vision is pathetic, and the exterior mirrors seem too small these days.

So it’s a good thing that parking radar is standard. Rivals – take note.

Whether you like the mouse-fur-meets-Jenny-Kee fabric trim is a matter of taste, but at least Proton is trying, and it helps lift the Persona’s interior above most other similarly priced light cars’ efforts. And while there is a good deal of cold hard plastic about, it all seems to be well made and built.

Although fitted with anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and dual front airbags, it is a shame that Proton cannot (yet) offer side and curtain airbags, or electronic stability control (apparently one or both may arrive later next year as part of a safety pack), particularly when Gen.2 does have side airbags as an option.

Nevertheless, this is the most complete Proton ever. It’s also one of the most complete and economical small sedans you can buy for $20,000 – so the $16,990 pricing is a bit of a sensation.

And the styling – surely one of the most integrated in its class – looks good from any angle. The company says the Persona was designed at the same time the Gen.2 was, meaning that it predates the Mazda3 sedan that so many observers (erroneously) believe served as visual inspiration.

As an urban family runabout, then, the Persona has more good character traits than bad. Indeed, that it actually has character, as well as real verve and styling that does not look like an after-thought should be food for thought for many potential buyers.

Proton boasts that some people – when told of the Persona’s price – are expecting a big catch, since its small-car sizing and light-car positioning make it seem suspiciously inexpensive.

But after our second spell behind the wheel, we think that it’s just downright honest value for money.

The other Asian and European competition should be worried indeed.

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