When our first national car rolled out of the new Proton plant in Shah Alam, Selangor, in 1985, it was like an infant taking tentative steps into territory dominated by the big auto boys from Europe, the US and Japan. Well, the Proton Saga is all grown up now and its parent company is geared to sprint forward, hand in hand with a strategic Chinese partner.
Typical of adults who constantly reinvent themselves, the brand has not been idle. The Proton Saga LMST, a revised version of the original, was introduced in 1992, followed by the launch of the second-generation Proton Saga BLM in 2008.
In 2016, the New Proton Saga hit the roads. Three years on, an intelligent reincarnation of that third-generation model was jointly unveiled on Aug 6 by DRB-Hicom, which took over Proton Holdings in 2012, and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which acquired a 49% stake in Proton Holdings in June 2017.
Among those on the 2019 Saga media drive from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh in mid-August were veteran motoring boys who were there at the birth of the first baby 34 years ago. The fact that they gave the facelift the thumbs up stirs a sense of pride in those of us who have sat behind the wheel of a Proton at one time or another.
The Proton story resonates with Malaysians because it encapsulates a dream fuelled by passion and commitment — as symbolised by the roaring tiger in its logo — that became a reality. Its eventful journey is marked by many milestones, the latest being the December 2018 debut of its sport utility vehicle, the Proton X70.
The X70, a variant of Geely’s Boyue SUV, is the first product co-developed by the Chinese automaker and DRB-Hicom since they inked their partnership. This flagship vehicle has given Proton a shot in the arm: Overall sales for the first five months of 2019 reportedly rose 70% compared with the same period last year — thanks in part to the 13,572 units of the X70 sold during that period.
It is also the inspiration for the latest Saga and, before that, the 2019 reincarnations of the Proton Iriz, Persona and Ixora, which sport smart features and latest technology that warrant a second look. This is a confidence boost for the company, which has long-term turnaround plans to regain its top position domestically and make inroads into the international market.
So what is new in the 2019 Proton Saga?
Unlike the athlete who shoots off at the gun, then lags behind after rounding the curve, this entry-level car takes a few breaths to pick up steam. But once it gets going, the cruise is smooth and surprisingly quiet. There is no floating sensation when the speedometer strays past 140kph and it does not wobble as you take a corner. Push the gear lever to “S” and you barely notice the strain as the car tackles an incline without losing speed.
Credit for all this goes to its brand new four-speed automatic gearbox, new five-spoke 15in alloy wheels with a floral motif wrapped in Silverstone tyres (another local product) and bigger brakes, which the media put to the test along a short stretch of B roads.
An “infinite weave” front grill introduced on the X70 SUV and a chrome strip that connects it with the reflector halogen headlights, as well as new front and rear bumpers are style updates that catch the eye.
Press the remote boot release button on the key fob and you will find more room for the many things the family needs to make a long drive fun.
The buzz surrounding the refreshed Saga goes up a notch when talk shifts to the 7in floating touchscreen monitor in its Premium range. Android-based, it has Bluetooth connectivity, 16GB internal storage and a MirrorLink function to pair it with smartphones. The screen is hooked up to a reverse camera, a plus when parking in tight spots.
A multi-information display between the dials reminds you to belt up before taking off, pinpoints a door that is ajar and tells you how far more you can go before the fuel gauge touches E. LED map lights, foldable grab handles, three USB ports, a sun visor with a ticket holder and mirror as well as an anti-lock braking system on all models add value to the Proton Saga, which starts from RM32,000 for the Standard MT variant powered by a 1.3-litre four-cylinder VVT engine.
Tricot headlining, another quality feature borrowed from the X70, gives the interior a premium feel, as does fresh grey upholstery with quilt patterns. The seats hug the driver and passengers comfortably, but those of bigger build may find them rather small.
Proton touts its reborn Saga as an “Intelligent Proposition” that is smart, stable and stylish and it was not difficult giving that three yeses as we lapped past the limestone hills of Kinta Valley. It is this confidence the company hopes to inspire among those who are wont to dismiss the made-in-Malaysia car as “Proton saja”.
Lunch break at Ma-Ni Thai Cuisine, ensconced in four acres of mature greenery in Hulu Bernam, Tanjung Malim, unearthed another surprise on our return journey. The restaurant, with four villas just steps away, was built six years ago by architect Mahussin and his wife Connie Tang as a retreat from madding KL.
The beautiful enclave, rejuvenated by enterprise and creative personal touches (a Bob Marley painting at the entrance and art pieces scattered around), reflects the Boleh spirit that can drive the country and national car forward as Malaysia celebrates its 62nd birthday.
The Proton Saga Standard MT variant starts from RM32,000. See here for more details.
This article first appeared on Aug 26, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.