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Car reviews - Proton - S16 - GX sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Low price, handling, steering, engine, performance, economy, passenger space, big boot, pleasant cabin, ride comfort
Room for improvement
No ABS, no passenger airbag, no lap-sash centre rear seatbelt, no folding rear seat, no lights-on buzzer, weak remote central locking range, big turning circle, limited steering column adjustment, 95 RON premium unleaded thirst

26 Feb 2010

STICKING one’s neck out takes a degree of confidence, but here goes.

What do the following light sedans – Holden Barina, Honda City and Kia Rio – have in common?

Before we answer, let’s also throw in the Hyundai Elantra and Holden Epica, as well as a bunch of non-sedans like the Hyundai Getz, Citroen C3 (including Pluriel), Ford Escape and Chrysler Sebring Convertible.

Okay, so what do they all share? Are you ready? Are you sitting down for this? Well, for one reason or another, we would rather live with the humble Proton S16 than with any of those.

There. We said it. The truth is out there – and in more ways than one too.

Malaysia’s Proton S16, you see, is one of Australia's least expensive new cars available right now.

The base price includes just one airbag (for the driver), no ABS anti-lock brakes and no stability control availability.

Now, as no ABS is a deal breaker for us, ticking the Safety Pack box to get it – along with a passenger ‘bag – is absolutely essential.

But you do get zero miles, a three-year general warranty with 24-hour roadside assist, four doors, five speeds, a 1.6-litre engine and seven years anti-corrosion warranty.

Try finding all that in an eight-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer with 120,000km for about the same price. For many people not able or wanting to gamble with second-hand cars, the new-versus-used argument ends right there.

Happily, the Proton is not automotive purgatory by any stretch of the imagination, despite the pricing – or the looks.

The latter is downright dumpy after the adventurous Savvy and Gen.2. We suspect the handiwork of a Teletubby. Frankly, a hatchback is preferable in this class but Proton is seeking people – and there are many of you out there – who would rather a sedan. They look classier, apparently.

Actually, the Malaysians ought to call the S16 a ‘hat back’ since it is literally shaped like one.

Get closer though and you’ll discover that the tall design – combined with doors that swing open almost 90 degrees – make entry and exit geriatric’s play. And they shut with a surprising thud as well. Nice.

Indeed, we get the distinct feeling that engineers have been employing their synaptic neurons as far as figuring out how folk use their cars because the Proton feels airy and roomy despite being Barina-sized.

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with the driving environment if you are under about 170cm tall. Beyond that you will find the sporty three-spoke steering wheel is set too low, the driver’s seat is too high, and the top of the instrument binnacle is obscured.

There is adjustability for the wheel but it is insufficient, while the seat cushion tilts only, altering the base angle but nothing else. Biggies may need to look elsewhere.

If you do fit, there’s plenty to like in the S16.

The instrumentation pack is reminiscent of the Stack items found in the Lotus Elise, and is quite smartly presented, set directly ahead of the driver.

But while we like the digital fuel and temperature gauges, the 24-hour clock and odometer info that is set in an LED window within the tachometer (yes! – and it’s redlined to 6200rpm), the speedometer markings are too cluttered and the crucial 50km/h markings too difficult to read.

The dash itself has a pleasing symmetry to it, is finished in hard but not nasty materials, and feels solidly constructed – although the unremitting sea of grey may not be everybody’s cup of tea. At least it doesn’t pong like in some other cheapies.

So here we are in Australia’s cheapest car, and we’re impressed to find a neat centre console complete with a simple but effective cupholder arm.

The air-conditioning is especially effective against our summer sun. You get a generous glovebox (unlike in some previous Protons), as well as plenty of storage slots (doors, dash, lower console) and a handy recess where the front passenger airbag would normally live (and hopefully no heads will end up).

Comfort isn’t compromised by price other, with rather nice cloth inserts on small but supportive front seats, which also feature a slide handle that feels good enough to grace a Mercedes-Benz (ironically the same item in the Suzuki Alto is singularly its nastiest). They also recline so far back you feel you’re in a dentist’s chair.

Sitting upright again, three amply sized rear-view mirrors and deep side windows aid vision, while a rear window demister, remote release for the fuel cap and boot lid, intermittent wipers, power steering, remote central locking, front power windows, and a mysterious button – prominently positioned – to kill the standard alarm are further surprise-and-delight features wouldn’t have found in a $16,000 Toyota Echo back in 2001.

Moving to the back seat though, you won’t find overhead grab-handles (an omission passengers may live to rue – read on), but there are door armrests, storage slots and even a bottle holder, while the front console ends with another drinks receptacle.

There’s ample room for feet beneath the front seats – increasing the appeal of an already quite comfy rear bench – but there are no real headrests, the backrest does not fold for boot access, the rear windows only have winders (and only go half-way down), and – c’mon Proton – the rear centre position comes with a lap belt only.

Not a particularly wide car to begin with anyway, consider the S16 a four-seater-only proposition.

Meanwhile, that boot is quite a large, rectangular shape with 413 litres, a high loading lip, and of course no cabin access. This annoyed us no end. Why be denied such versatility? Let’s hope the us-spec models get a split-fold rear seat.

Now here’s the thing – soon the engine in our test car will become the provenance of more expensive S16 models while the basic car will get a 1.3-litre engine that – by some accounts – is actually a sweet little unit with ample performance.

So in the up-spec S16s you will find the same 1.6-litre CamPro twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine as in our test car, delivering a healthy 82kW of power at 6500rpm and 148Nm of torque at 4000rpm. The bad news is it requires premium-unleaded petrol (95 RON plus) to achieve those outputs.

The good news is that acceleration is brisk, with enough poke to squeal the front tyres. Loudly. No traction control intervention means that this happens quite a lot too. And we only had hot dry roads during our time in the Proton so expect quite a spin cycle in the wet.

Helped out by its lightweight construction, the 1070kg S16’s performance is strong, thanks to plenty of torque down low. This is one of those cars where you can potter around in top gear without stalling the engine.

Yet, as its power-rev max reveals, it is a willing revver, pulling hard all the way to the 6200rpm redline, although above about 4000rpm the engine noise is quite intrusive, if not unpleasant.

Fuel consumption is another S16 highlight, probably because you don’t have to rev it all day long.

We are disappointed with the gearshift action though, which comes across as a little rubbery and notchy. But we did get used to it, and it’s a good sight better than the Barina’s.

High winds do throw the car about a little at freeway speeds. From about 85km/h there’s plenty of blustering coming from the exterior mirrors too, adding to the din inside.

While we’re whinging, around town the turning circle is too big for a ‘city car’.

Yet here is why we would choose the S16 over the Rio and co: Dynamically it can hold its head up higher even than the Proton’s styling.

Armed with that chunky little steering wheel, the helm is always alert, with handling and roadholding qualities defined by their respective responsiveness and control. The S16 will tackle a turn with the sort of poise that a City driver would never dare dream of.

This is the sort of car that eggs you on to go that little bit faster and harder. Do so, and you are met with flat cornering that eventually turns into progressive and controllable understeer. And there is enough stopping power in the disc/drum brake set-up to quell the fun when the need arises. Too bad our car didn’t have ABS.

An absorbent ride is another Proton plus, with the S16 able to take cobbled back streets, big speed humps and road imperfections in its stride.

They were heard more than felt, adding to the road and engine racket that is part and parcel of this particular runabout. It isn’t unpleasant though.

Such dynamic sophistication is simply unexpected at this price point, and is the welcome upshot of having Lotus look after the car’s dynamics. Tidy work, Proton. FYI, our test car wore Goodyear Ducaro 175/70 R13s, and came with a full-sized spare.

So what do we make of the S16?

Don’t buy one without ABS brakes and go for as many airbags as possible – otherwise you might literally be sticking your neck out. Don’t carry more than two people in the back, don’t expect hatchback practicality because it isn’t there and don’t be over 170cm tall if you’re doing the driving.

Get past these sticking points and the Proton S16 is neither nasty nor in a sad state.

It drives a whole lot better than the Care Bear styling suggests and you won’t get toxic shock from the nicely presented interior, but as the base model stands, we’d rather have the far-better equipped Alto.

So Proton ought to forget about making low-price headlines and just pitch the S16 with more safety spec for around $14,000, because it is better than some of the competition at that price point.

Indeed, the S16 is greater than the sum of its asking price, but we seem to have more confidence in its baby than Proton has.

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