Proton’s coming of age
KUALA LUMPUR, July 25 ― When a car is decently engineered, you often don’t notice. Everything just... works. And in this day and age, there is actually very rarely a car that is badly engineered. They may be a bit noisier than most. They may use cheap plastics here and there. They may even handle like a barge at sea, but by and large, they are usually a comfortable, reliable means of getting from point A to B.
Take Protons, for example. They may not be the most exciting things on wheels. Nor the most luxurious. And they say very little about the state of your personal finances. But they’re cheap, relatively reliable and they make getting around town a beautifully painless affair.
Having had the opportunity to drive the current crop of Protons ― from the office Exora shuttle to my buddy’s brand-spanking new Preve, I can attest that whilst these cars are still a long way off from being desirable, they drive well, have no nasty surprises up their sleeves and still have the coldest air-conditioning systems this side of Siberia.
In other words, they sure as hell beat taking public transport in this city.
But it wasn’t always that way…
Nothing drove home this fact more than when I hopped straight from my buddy’s one-week-old Preve into a Gen.2 after lunch last week. If you’ve ever driven early-model Gen.2s before, you’ll realise that this car was from an age when Proton thought it could do things their own way.
In defiance of motoring convention, it has no glovebox. All you get is a shelf below the dash. It has an analogue clock tacked onto the top of the dashboard, protruding out of the vast expanse of plastic like some hooded medieval gravestone.
It even has gold-coloured interior door handles that gleefully shed its paint if you were so much as to rub them. And there is simply no way to open the boot from the outside of the car. There isn’t even a keyhole there.
It also has an engine that is as rough as a bucket of nails when revved. Earplugs are a necessity if you ever dare venture past 3,000rpm on the tacho. Which you have to do with ridiculous frequency since the engine is completely, and hopelessly gutless at anything below 2,500rpm.
One gets the feeling this car wasn’t quite the finished article when it was launched...
I could spend all day highlighting the quirks of Proton’s little hatchback, to be honest. But for now, there’s really only one thing that positively irks me about this car ― its automatic transmission. While some of car’s attributes can easily be written off as charming quirks, the whole Gen.2 driving experience is marred by this simple box of gears and actuators. It’s simply the single most intolerable thing on the car.
Whoever programmed the shift logic on this device, I reckon, should be legally and physically restrained from designing or programming any vehicle component for the rest of his natural life.
Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the inner workings of gearboxes and torque multiplication would realise that when a car is cursed with an engine so desperately short on torque like the original CAMPRO, one has to compensate by having a gearbox programmed to hang on to lower ratios for a bit longer to keep the engine where it makes the most torque.
No such luck with the Gen.2’s gearbox. It shifts up to overdrive with the exuberance of a five-year-old in ToysRus, leaving you gasping at the positively anorexic acceleration as a result. Perodua Kelisas, I reckon, would smoke these Protons at traffic light drag races.
Initial acceleration feels promising. First gear gets you to 20kph or so relatively swiftly, but from then on, the gearbox rather illogically shifts up just as the engine starts to come alive, dropping revs deep into the CAMPRO abyss of torque-lessness. So to make a decent getaway, you quite literally have to constantly mash the loud pedal to the floor. You can pretty much forget about hyper-miling with this car.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the gearbox also has this odd, annoying habit of downshifting at the first sign of a dip in the road.
I know, I know… some of you are probably asking: “…doesn’t downshifting on downhill stretches keep the car’s speed in check and save your brakes from frying?”.
Yes, they do. It’s driving 101. But ― and here’s the bit that is crucial ― downshifting is usually only necessary on steeper declines. Like those on the North-South Highway near Ipoh. Most of the time, we just coast down gentle slopes by backing off the gas pedal and brushing the brakes when necessary.
Thing is, though, the Gen.2’s gearbox thinks EVERY minor dip in the road is a major downhill stretch.
So imagine this ― you’re pottering happily about at 80kph on the SPRINT highway. The road starts to go downhill just before the Securities Commission building at that point, so you ease off the throttle to stay within the speed limit. All of a sudden *WHAM*, the gearbox shifts down from fourth to third, sending the engine revs from a calm 2,000rpm to a screaming 4,000rpm. At which point your ears start to bleed thanks to a mind-numbing amount of engine boom echoing in the cabin. The Proton CAMPRO ― refined, it is most certainly not.
At this point you have two choices ― step on the accelerator to force the gearbox to upshift back to fourth or tolerate the cacophony of mechanical abuse being inflicted on the engine by the confused gearbox.
For most people, the former solution would be the obvious choice ― except for one minor detail. Giving the engine the beans to force an upshift would also force your road speed above the legal limit.
The law vs bleeding ears. Tough one, that.
It was as if the gearbox and engine of the car were developed on opposite ends of the world, to be honest. And it makes driving the Gen.2 a tricky process of constantly staying below 60kph or above 90kph to avoid triggering the insanely stupid auto-downshift feature. So you’re always either holding up traffic or watching out for speed cameras. All for the price of auditory peace and quiet.
I’m just thankful Proton has abandoned its pointlessly rebellious days. Compared to the Gen.2, the Preve was a haven of peace & quiet. The gearbox behaved. The engine was muted. And there was a cavernous glovebox for my knick knacks. Acceleration, although not mind-blowing, was more than adequate. The grunt from Proton’s new turbocharged CFE powerplant made it hard to believe that the engine was related in any way to the anaemic CAMPRO.
Where there was once a complete void of torque, now there is a thick, fat wedge of pulling power that builds progressively from idle all the way to the redline without a flat-spot to speak of. Throttle response was beautifully judged too, with a soft initial tip-in to avoid the stop-start jerkiness so common with cars with sporty pretentions these days.
From behind the wheel, it felt like it was designed by people who actually cared about making a good car, rather than just another set of wheels to flog in the name of national pride. Above all, it showcased just how far our local hero has come in the past few years. From a maker of cheap but seriously flawed cars to one with a decent sense of what’s good and what’s not in the automotive world today.
But ― and here’s the caveat ― having then popped into a Hyundai showroom to check out the new Elantra with my Preve-driving buddy a few days later, we both realised… just how much further Proton still has to go.
The boys in Shah Alam may have come of age, but I reckon there’s still quite a fair bit of work left to be done before Proton can truly claim itself to be “world class.”