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First drive: Gen.2 is best Proton yet

Stylish: The Proton Gen.2 is a good looking and lithe small car. Only the engine really lets it down.

Proton will launch its new small five-door hatch in Australia in September

25 Mar 2004

PROTON will start its regeneration in Australia in September when the Gen.2 small hatchback arrives on the local scene.

To be launched here just four months after it goes on sale in its home Malaysian market, Gen.2 is the most convincing car Proton has ever built.

Now the cynics might suggest it hasn’t got much to beat, such has been the mediocre standard of previous Protons, those cars pretty much based on reproductions of old Mitsubishis.

And the cynics would be right. But that hasn’t stopped this car giving indication to some real promise of design and engineering ability at Proton.

It needs to be better because the huge tariff walls that have protected Proton for two decades are crashing down as part of a free trade agreement that is opening the Malaysian market up to wholesale attack by South Korea and Japan’s massive automotive industry.

Gen.2 is just the start of a vital new model campaign by Proton. There will be a new three-door Satria in Australia in the new year, closely followed by a five-door entry level car. Beyond that there are plans for performance cars, large cars, cross-overs and SUVs, most of which will eventually make it to Australia.

The first thing that must be said about Gen.2 is it will probably have a new name in Australia – there are a couple of other options ahead of it. But certain not to reappear is the current car’s Persona name.

Gen.2 has great significance in Malaysia where it flags the second step in Proton’s development of homegrown vehicles, following on from the Waja.

You remember Waja don’t you? The dramatically over-priced four-door sedan that up to its launch in 2001 was the most independent (of Mitsubishi) car Proton had yet developed, including its own front-wheel drive platform and unique styling developed with subsidiary Lotus Engineering.

This car takes up where the Waja left off, replacing the wheezy old Mitsubishi 1.6-litre engine with a new double overhead camshaft 16-valve unit developed with Lotus called Campro, which produces 82kW at 6000rpm and 148Nm at 4000.

But there is still Mitsubishi influence in the drivetrain with both the five-speed manual and four-speed auto straight from Waja.

43 center image The styling is all-original and very impressive. Gen.2 is a thoroughly convincing exterior execution of a light and lively hatch. From the scalloped headlights through to the rounded C-pillar and concave rear-end, there is barely a bum note struck.

It measures up at 4310mm overall, is 1725mm wide, 1435mm high, has a wheelbase of 2600mm and weighs in at 1175kg.

Inside, the styling is even better. Where the exterior is orthodox if effective, the interior has some lovely original touches including separated instruments, a unique audio head unit, vertically stacked air-conditioning controls, soft-touch micro switches and pistol grip handbrake.

The absence of a lockable glovebox is a curious decision, the baby cupholder won’t fit man-size Aussie drinks and there are only small door pockets in the front and none in the rear. But there is a 415-litre cargo capacity and fold-down rear seats.

Gen.2 will be offered here in two specifications, with both models including ABS anti-lock brakes, four wheel discs, dual front airbags and seatbelt pretensioners.

There will also be alloy wheels, air-conditioning, power windows, remote keyless entry, central locking, alarm and Blaupunkt CD/AM/FM audio.

The higher specification model will include climate control air-conditioning, four airbags, cruise control and a rear spoiler.

And pricing? Expect it to kick off somewhere between $18,500 and $19,500 in entry level manual form, under-cutting the $19,990 versions of key small cars like the top-selling Toyota Corolla, Nissan Pulsar sedan and Mitsubishi Lancer sedan.

But those cars all have, according to GoAuto Info Tools, distinct power and torque advantages over the Proton, from bigger 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines the buying public have shown they expect these days in small cars. The Corolla heads the pack with 100kW/171Nm, the Lancer produces 92kW/173Nm and the Pulsar 90kW/163Nm.

While those big players sell in the thousands per month, Proton Cars Australia is forecasting just 500 sales in the first six months Gen.2 is on sale.

It’s a reflection of just how far back PCA is in perception and sales. Last year the company sold just 1320 cars here through its small dealer network, even that an improvement on 2002’s dismal 873 sales.

But with the influx of new models following Gen.2 into Australia and plans for an expanded dealer line-up, the expectation from PCA is that it will sell 5000 cars in Australia in 2006 and eventually the aim is 10,000 sales per annum.


WHEN the Waja was launched in 2001, the car’s silly pricing and Proton’s ridiculous claim to be Asia’s BMW took the spotlight. That meant the advances in design and engineering the car also presented were virtually ignored.

Its relatively simple MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear-end, combined with rack and pinion power steering, made for a taut, trim and disciplined drive that put many other small cars to shame. The Lotus influence was obvious.

So it is no surprise that Gen.2, with the same fundamental underpinnings, delivers a similarly controlled experience, if our first impressions on some challenging Malaysian roads are indicative.

Gen.2 rides all but the biggest bumps and corrugations well, the damping only losing its composure at the extremes of travel.

It doesn’t roll excessively at speed, negotiating tight corners without drama, the front-end pushing out into predictable understeer as the limit is approached.

And just as it behaves itself well, the Gen.2 also looks great on the road from virtually any angle – a tribute to young Malaysian stylist Damian Chia, who led the design team in Kuala Lumpur, and his Lotus colleagues.

Company engineers said there was still throttle-engine compatibility tuning to be performed

Unfortunately, while there has been a dramatic change under the bonnet, there’s still no dramatic improvement in performance. As we experienced it, the Campro engine is severely lacking in low and mid-range torque and only adequate in top-end power terms. There’s a noticeable step at 4000rpm but no noticeable increase in urgency.

Proton claims a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 10.5 seconds and that seems optimistic. A fuel average of 5.8L/100km? Ditto. Good news is it complies with Euro Step 4 emission standards.

Alerted to our concerns, company engineers said there was still throttle-engine compatibility tuning to be performed and some ECU re-fettling before the car’s Malaysian debut in May. We hope it makes a substantial difference.

As it is, Campro is smooth and enthusiastic enough, but asthmatic, so much so that quick passes became slow and debatable and hill climbs a throttle-flattening chore. Thankfully, the manual gearchange and clutch combination was the best we’ve sampled in a Proton – and they certainly got a workout keeping the engine on song.

In 2005 the engine will be boosted with the introduction of Cam Profile Switching (CPS), which will push power beyond 100kW. That, or a 1.8 or 2.0 Campro, can’t come soon enough.

Right now, the performance of the engine is the obvious sore thumb for this car.

The interior is as comfortable as it is good looking, with big armchairs up front and plenty of legroom in the back, although lateral headroom is compromised by the curved rear roof.

What about quality, an area where Proton has been notably lacking in the past? Well, the pre-production cars we drove weren’t brilliant in terms of fit and finish and squeaks and rattles.

But the quality of the materials is certainly improved and a tour of Proton’s new highly-automated Tanjung Malim plant where Gen.2 is being built certainly shows there is the potential for a vastly improved product.

Which would only be appropriate for a car that has taken Proton to new heights in so many other ways. For all the cynicism, saying this is Proton’s best car ever really does mean something.

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