New models - Proton - Gen.2
First drive: Born-again Proton hatches Gen.2
Performance is all that’s missing from the sharp handling and looking Proton Gen.2
13 Oct 2004
PROTON is back in business after virtually disappearing from the Australian automotive landscape two long years ago.
Released this week following what Proton describes as the most important car launch it has ever held in Australia, the sharply priced, sharply styled and sharp handling Gen.2 hatch represents the first all-Malaysian designed and built vehicle.
Now available from a small but increasing number of Proton dealers, the stylish new five-door Gen.2 replaces the forgettable Persona and follows a succession of rebadged, superseded Mitsubishis offered by Proton since 1985 and by its Proton Cars Australia subsidiary here since 1996.
With a chassis developed by Proton-owned British sports car-maker Lotus, Gen.2 brings a new level of ride and handling to the small car category, along with unprecedented equipment levels and a new entry price point of just $17,990 for the least expensive of three Gen.2 variants.
But the first of many new models from Proton in coming years will need all of the above to make an impact in the fiercely fought small car segment, in which bargain basement and increasingly accomplished South Korean offerings battle for customers with the established Japanese brands as well as European-built small cars from Holden and Ford – all of which now start well under the traditional $20,000 mark.
Hindering Gen.2’s cause, apart from Proton’s little-known brand name, will be a 1.6-litre CamPro S4PH engine, developed in-house by Proton at a cost of $165 million, which delivers just 82kW at 6000rpm and 148Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
A long-stroke 16-valve DOHC inoline four-cylinder featuring a 76 x 88mm bore and stroke, 10:1 compression and average fuel economy of 7.2 litres per 100km, it is said to offer a class leading specific output of 52kW per litre and accelerates Gen.2 to 100km/h in a claimed 10.5 seconds. And on to a top speed of 190km/h.
Of course, much of this is irrelevant in a class that’s powered predominantly by 1.8 or 2.0-litre engines producing up to 105kW and 186Nm – in the case of Hyundai’s Elantra. Proton’s 0-100 claim also seems optimistic, with GoAuto unable to get within a second of that mark (using a stopwatch) at the launch.
While Proton’s Cam Profile Switching (CPS) variable valve timing system, delivering about 100kW, will come on stream in a flagship Gen.2 variant sometime next year and Gen.2 undercuts many small cars in terms of fuel consumption, an investigation of small car statistics reveals just how lame Gen.2’s performance is on paper.
Leading the small car performance stakes are the $18,990 Elantra (105kW/186Nm 2.0) and premium $21,490 Mazda3 (104kW/181Nm 2.0). Next come Kia’s new $18,990 Cerato (101kW/182Nm 2.0), Toyota’s class leading $19,990 Corolla (100kW/171Nm 1.8), Mitsubishi’s $19,990 Lancer (92kW/173Nm 2.0), Daewoo’s $19,490 Lacetti (90kW/165Nm 1.8) and both the Nissan’s run-out Pulsar (90kW/163Nm 1.8) and Holden’s Astra Classic (90kW/165Nm 1.8) – both of which are now selling at $18,990.
Ford’s $19,980 Focus, which was criticised for its lack of performance, offers a 85kW/156Nm 1.8, and even the slow selling Suzuki Liana’s wheezy 76kW/144Nm 1.6 has just been upgraded to a 92kW/170Nm 1.8 for $19,990.
But while performance – and more specifically, torque – is not one of Gen.2’s strong points, both its fresh, aggressive styling and Lotus-tuned chassis are.
Combining uniquely Malaysian styling cues, Gen.2 features headlights that aim to resemble the eyes of Proton’s tiger mascot and a grille inspired by the traditional Malay kite (or Wau) and the handle of the Malay dagger (Keris).
Measuring 4310mm long, 1725mm wide, 1435mm high and riding on a 2600mm wheelbase with 1475/1470mm front/rear wheel tracks, the 1175kg Gen.2 is larger than Corolla and, compared to Persona, offers 33mm more front legroom, 35mm more rear legroom and a 75 litre larger boot (at 415 litres). Gen.2 has a 1000kg towing capacity.
Featuring fully independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes and 195/55 R15 tyres on 15 x 6.0-inch wheels, the first Proton to be built at the company’s new Tanjung Malim plant, 100km north of Kuala Lumpur, will be available in three specifications - each of which is claimed to exceed that of its competitors, in an effort to make Gen.2 not simply cheap, but good value.
The entry level L-Line five-speed manual opens the Gen.2 account and includes air-conditioning, twin front airbags, remote central locking, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, trip computer, power mirrors and steel wheels as standard for $17,990.
For $19,500, Gen.2 M-Line adds anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), alloy wheels and, on auto models, cruise control.
The range-topping H-Line also includes standard front side airbags, climate control, reverse parking sensors, front and rear fog lights, rear spoiler and a mobile phone holder, for $20,990. Four-speed auto models attract a $2000 premium.
Accessories including 17-inch wheels, a bodykit and 10-CD stacker will be available, while a number of bright paint colours will be exclusive to each specification (with white available on all three). Gen.2 will come with a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty including 24-hour Proton Assist roadside assistance.
With a launch special including free window tinting and fabric protection worth $790 available until November 31, PCA hopes to sell a modest 1200 Gen.2s next year and a further 1680 in 2006, with females expected to comprise 60 per cent of buyers.
DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:AS Proton’s first truly independent vehicle, Gen.2 is a remarkable effort.
A surprisingly cohesive design, Gen.2 mixes unique Malaysian styling cues with a taut, compact stance that - notwithstanding hints of Mercedes’ C-class Sports coupe at the rear and its Subaru Liberty-like headlights – delivers an amalgam of non-derivative style and aggression that should attract few objections.
While style is crucial in the competitive small car segment, so too is price – and Gen.2 appears to have undercut its most direct rivals significantly without skimping on equipment.
Tactile and well integrated steering wheel buttons, a white-faced analogue clock and a handy trip computer comprising distance-to-empty, fuel consumption and journey time functions are surprising features at this price point.
Similarly, while alloy wheels and ABS are reserved for the mid-spec M-Line, the flagship H-Line’s side airbags, climate control and parking sensors represent good value at $21,000, although cruise control is strangely only available on manuals.
Only the lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment, a proper glovebox and more than one cupholder detract from an equally tasteful interior design, which presents a deep-set instrument binnacle under twin hoods, classy mesh headlining and animal skin textured two-tone dash that looks almost BMW-like but is hard to touch.
Front seats lack lateral support and the passenger’s does without the driver’s height adjuster, but the seating position is neutral enough to be comfortable for most shapes over reasonable distances. Pedal placement is excellent and even allows heel-toe gearchanges.
There’s no centre rear head restraint but Gen.2 compensates with five three-point seatbelts (including pretensioners and height adjustment up front), plenty of leg and headroom for four large adults and a split-folding rear seat that opens to a fully lined boot.
Build quality has taken a big leap forward too, with generally excellent interior fit and finish, good wind sealing and a distinct lack of squeaks and rattles, bar a persistent dash vibration below 4000rpm. There was some variation in panel gaps on some cars at the launch and at least a couple featured loose power mirror control switches.
But overall the Malaysian national car company’s first effort seems at least on par with its South Korean rivals, which still trail the likes of Toyota in terms of refinement.
Far less convincing is Gen.2’s performance. Smoother and quieter than any other Proton it may be, but the 1.6 CamPro engine’s lack of torque made itself painfully apparent at the first reasonable hill we encountered on the highway outside Tamworth, NSW.
Requiring a downchange to fourth and then third just to maintain a respectable highway speed, Gen.2 simply doesn’t cut the mustard below 4000rpm, despite its featherweight sub-1200kg kerb weight and reasonably short gearing that sees 2750rpm registering at 100km/h in top. And that was with just two adults on board, without luggage.
Around town Gen.2 also needs plenty of revs to keep on the boil and although useable power kicks in from 4000rpm and extends well beyond the 6500rpm redline to a 7200rpm soft limiter, performance falls well short of what is offered by its popular rivals.
Of course, a VVT version will address this in 2005 and Gen.2’s lack of tractability was less apparent in the tight downhill sections of the Oxley Highway as it winds its way off the Great Divide to the coast.
It was here that Gen.2’s greatest asset shone brightly. Feeling taut, stable and agile, Gen.2’s well sorted chassis comprises steering that’s direct, responsive and communicative, and suspension that’s firm and well controlled but retains better than average ride quality.
Lotus’ involvement in this area is obvious, because Gen.2 manages what few cars twice its price can achieve: ride quality with handling response. Some steering kickback can be felt over mid-corner bumps at full tilt and Gen.2 will understeer at the limit, but that limit isn’t as easy to find as you’d think.
Plenty of grip, crisp turn-in and near-neutral, flat handling that allows its driver to adjust lines mid-corner or to hold a fast line with confidence gives Gen.2 a WRX-like quality and makes it one of the best handling small cars we’ve ever driven - and certainly the best at this price.
Indeed, if ever there was a chassis crying out for a better engine, this is it.
Which means Gen.2’s best attribute is the one that few customers will experience regularly, or indeed be sold on after a test drive. On the other hand, Gen.2’s performance - or lack thereof – will be immediately apparent to most and may turn many away.
And that’s a shame, because Gen.2 deserves serious consideration by small car buyers – if not for its fresh styling and outstanding value then for its brilliant ride and handling.
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