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First drive: Proton's spicier new Persona

New personality: Redesigned Persona is just three months away.

Proton’s Gen.2-based Persona sedan aims to be the most complete Malaysian car yet

3 Dec 2007

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in MALAYSIA

PROTON’S best chance at becoming a more powerful small-car force arrives early in 2008 in the shape of the next Persona.

Based on the WRM44-series Gen.2 five-door hatch, the WRM41 Persona will debut at the Melbourne International Motor Show in March before going on sale the same month. The four-door sedan has already been met with considerable success in its native Malaysia.

Sub-$20,000 pricing will underpin an aggressive marketing positioning in Australia for the Persona, a car that Proton says is more than a boot bolted on to the existing Gen.2’s posterior.

Beyond the new three-box silhouette, the Persona departs from the Gen.2 with larger rear-door apertures for easier entry and egress, a comprehensively revamped cabin with measurably more rear-seat headroom, more flexible engine performance, revised automatic gearbox tuning and improved overall refinement.

Or, in other words, Proton has tackled most of the faults of the existing Gen.2 in order to create a more rounded, consumer-friendly small sedan that can better compete against rivals such as the Nissan Tiida, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Cerato and Holden Viva.

The Gen.2 will also receive many of these upgrades as part of a restyle scheduled for later in 2008 or early 2009. Expect it to be rebadged as the Persona hatch, although this has yet to be confirmed. Proton Cars Australia management are currently weighing up the option.

Many body panels are exclusive to the Persona sedan. Moving back from the restyled grille, there is a redesigned roof panel that is not as coupe-like in profile as the hatch, along with all-new side panels, back window, rear doors and alloy wheels.

43 center imageAccording to Bob Hall, Proton’s head of product planning, the less rakish roofline, taller height for the rear-door aperture and 43mm increase in rear headroom were all paramount in creating a more convincing family sedan conveyance from the Gen.2 base.

Obviously, the rear boot structure is completely new too – although the tail-lights are shared with the Gen.2. This brings the Persona’s length to 4477mm, registering a 167mm increase. Both Protons share an identical 2600mm wheelbase.

Proton has revamped the interior to give it a less Spartan appearance, starting with the installation of a glovebox.

New door trims abound, with relocated and grouped power window, electric mirror and central door-locking switches fitted on to the driver’s side. And the instrumentation includes a revised digital display with trip computer and digital clock functions, with the latter being in place of the Gen.2’s upper-centre console analogue unit.

Furthermore, the seats ditch the ‘tombstone’ look for separate adjustable head restraints, while there are new door-handles and locks, revised seat fabrics and lap/sash seatbelts for all five occupants.

Further back, split/folding rear seats open up to a 430-litre boot, which is enough for two full-sized golf bags. That’s up 60 litres compared to the Gen.2.

Another area where Proton has tackled a Gen.2 weakness is driveability.

While on paper the Lotus co-engineered 1.6-litre CamPro four-cylinder petrol engine’s 82kW of power at 6000rpm and 148Nm of torque at 4000rpm seems identical to the existing Gen.2’s outputs, Proton says it has retuned the software for performance that takes in the Persona’s less-favourable power-to-weight ratio.

In a nutshell, there is more torque available further down the rev range than before, as well as a less peaky power delivery around the 6000rpm-plus mark.

Smoother acceleration, better low-speed pick-up and improved electronically controlled four-speed automatic gearbox harmonisation with the CamPro engine’s power characteristics are claimed.

Nevertheless, the raw data accrued from overseas models still reveals post-10 second performance figures for the 0-100km/h-sprint time: the five-speed manual’s is 12 seconds, which is 2.3 seconds ahead of the automatic.

Proton also defends the relatively small 1597cc engine capacity when most rivals exceed 1.8 litres, saying that this is more in tune with increasing consumer demands for more frugal and emissions-compliant powerplants.

Using overseas data again, the fuel-consumption average at 90km/h is 6.3 and 6.6L/100km respectively for the manual and automatic Persona.

Mirroring the Gen.2, underpinning the car is MacPherson strut suspension at the front and a multi-link and anti-roll bar rear-end set-up.

Proton devised this front-wheel drive platform from the recently discontinued (in Australia) Waja, which was itself loosely derived off the Dutch NedCar Mitsubishi Carisma project – a European-focussed vehicle co-developed with pre-Ford-ownership Volvo in the mid 1990s that also sired the first Volvo S40 and V40 models.

Australian-spec Personas will arrive with ventilated discs at the front and solid discs at the rear, with anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution standard.

Wheels are to be 15-inch alloys shod with 195/60R15 tyres, and backed up by a space-saver spare.

Other standard items will include twin front airbags, air-conditioning, reverse parking sensors and an alarm with an immobiliser.

ESP stability control will not be offered in the Persona for the time being.

Proton Cars Australia boss John Startari was not inclined to reveal other details of the Persona – including exact pricing and expected sales numbers – until the model’s Australian press launch in February next year.

However, he did reveal that the Persona will be skewed towards the family car market, while the Gen.2 – like the Satria Neo launched earlier this year – will be the sportier alternative in Proton’s line-up.

Released mid-year in Malaysia, the latest Persona is manufactured at Proton’s three-year-old Malim Plant, some 80km from Kuala Lumpur. With high levels of automation and more than 1900 staff, the facility is also the birthplace for the Savvy, Satria Neo and Gen.2.

The previous Persona was a redevelopment of the CC-series Lancer sedan sold here between 1992 and 1996, and featured unique bodywork as well as a five-door Aeroback exclusively developed by (and for) Proton.

However, it was initially released here as the Wira, by private importer Inchcape, which also launched the Malaysian brand to Australia in May 1995. Although initial demand was promising, the project faltered quickly and Inchcape backed out barely a year later.

The factory-backed Proton Cars re-released the Wira as the Persona in November 1996, and had steadily offered it in a number of Mitsubishi-engined guises until the Gen.2 usurped it in October 2004.

Drive impressions:

SAY goodbye to the reheated Mitsubishi and/or half-baked Proton! Persona – a name last seen on the rump of the Malaysian carmaker’s ex-Mitsubishi CC series Lancer cast-off in late 2004 – is back, and it is easily the best car to wear the tiger logo.

And while it’s true that the Persona is essentially a Gen.2 hatchback with a (surprisingly aesthetically successful) boot transplant, Proton has taken the opportunity to fix most of the little things that helped make the Gen.2 review poorly when launched three years ago.

No longer will most driver/owners feel like they are behind the wheel of a car that is still in the final stages of its developmental processes.

Case in point: except for the too-small exterior mirrors and a few isolated islands of plastic interior fittings that are just a tad too cheap to contemplate, the fully trimmed and lined cabin now feels much more complete.

Better still, it is at last able to accept all the accoutrements that people often bring along with them – like drinks, phones and stuff you might want to store - because (and this is progress) the Persona has a glovebox, door pockets and cup-holders! Gen.2 gets them next year too - along with the Persona name, we hope.

There’s more of course, like repositioned switches and controls where you expect them to be seats with adjustable head restraints and lap/sash seat-belts a floor console with a compartment and rear twin cup-holders better instrumentation a huge boot with a split/folding rear seat and back doors that open big and wide so you don’t hit your head while entering.

Obviously, while Proton welcomes these things like they’re a Godsend, all are pretty much taken for granted in competing models, leaving the Malaysians back to square one. At least they’re not behind the eight ball.

And no sedan rival at the expected sub-$20,000 price point combines such well-integrated styling with a cracker of a chassis either.

Yes, there is only 1.6 litres under the bonnet. And, yes, you still have to wring its neck to really get things going quickly.

But nowhere near as much as you need to in the Gen.2 (more torque at lower revs is the trick here), while visiting the upper-rev limits (the Persona was still pulling well past the 6200rpm redline) still gives you those extra legs for overtaking, for instance.

Combined with responsive steering for eager, flat and safe handling and road-holding, high levels of body control for when darting through fast corners, and brakes that are well on the money, you get the impression that – with the Persona – Proton throws a sports sedan into the basic family car package for nothing.

Far-fetched or wishful thinking, you say? Then remember that Proton wholly owns and controls Lotus – the maker of some of the best-handling vehicles in the world. Only less squeal-prone tyres detracted from the Persona’s dynamics.

So what we have here now is a small sedan that does all the worthy but mundane stuff well, but also spices things up with a revvy engine, slick gear-change, fun handling, a good ride and attractive, distinctive styling.

We didn’t even mind that the 1.6-litre/automatic combination needs a determined shove of the accelerator and even some occasional well-timed downshifts to ‘2’ and ‘L’ to give us the open-road performance we desired, although in built-up urban traffic the self-shifting Persona did not prove to be the sluggard that its specification suggests.

Of course, we need to drive the Persona on Australian roads to see if it can cope with our conditions.

And the reality is, some extremely stiff competition – most with larger engines – exist to give the Malaysian hell: the Hyundai Elantra and Nissan’s Tiida sedans both drive considerably better than they look, and are noticeably gutsier and quieter than the Persona.

And Proton must be mindful not to let prices encroach on the current small-sedan favourites – Mitsubishi Lancer, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Otherwise these C-segment divas will eat the Malaysian car alive.

We have come away feeling that – priced at comfortably under $20,000 – the latest Proton has a real chance of cracking the fierce small-sedan segment.

And unlike its former Jurassic-era namesake, this Persona has a colourful character that stands out as an individual and driver’s choice among some depressingly vanilla sedan rivals – Holden Viva, Hyundai Accent or Kia Cerato anyone? The bottom line is that by putting the boot into its Gen.2, critics have convinced Proton that it needed to make a more complete car when doing the same to create the Persona.

Things, then, are certainly cooking in the hitherto bland sub-$20K small-sedan segment.

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