Proton Persona facelift: can it take the fight to Honda, Nissan and Toyota?

By daryl, 06 August 2021

2022 Proton Persona facelift vs Honda City vs Nissan Almera vs Toyota Vios

Proton Persona Premium

The Proton Persona has been facelifted. Again. However, unlike the 2019 update, this year’s round of improvements to the Malaysian carmaker’s B-segment sedan seem a lot more comprehensive on paper, which got us thinking; does it finally have what it takes to compete with, or rather 'disrupt' the big boys, aka the Japanese favourites that comfortably sit one rung higher in the price spectrum? 

Let’s try to run the numbers… 

Round One – No money, no talk 

Despite adding a long list of new features to the Persona’s spec sheet, Proton has done well to keep its prices below the RM60k mark. We weren’t expecting it to really broach into the RM70k-RM90k bracket occupied by the Japanese trio to begin with. But despite a slight bump from the pre-facelift, prices ranging from RM45,200 to RM54,900 certainly set quite an impressive benchmark given what buyers get for the money (more on that later). 

Of the three Japanese alternatives, the Honda City is the most accessible with prices starting from RM74,191 for the base 1.5L S variant. We’re leaving the electrified City RS that costs RM106k out of this equation, so let’s momentarily assume that the Melaka-built sedan tops out at RM86,561 for the 1.5L V – the highest-spec non-hybrid City still has all the makings of a range topper anyway. 

With three variants on offer between RM74,623 to RM87,584, Toyota’s Vios range bears a striking resemblance to the Honda City catalogue, with plenty more similarities to cover throughout the rest of this entry. With the arch rivals sticking to each other like a pair of clingy siblings with a severe case of FOMO, the latest iteration of the Nissan Almera is somewhat alienated as the most expensive sedan of this comparison, with prices ranging from RM79,906 to RM91,310. 

All prices quoted are on-the-road without insurance, inclusive of the full SST exemption for locally-assembled cars that last until the end of the year. And Proton is offering free labour for the first three service intervals, for a limited time, to sweeten the deal. 

Proton Persona Interior

Proton Persona

Honda City RS interior

Honda City (RS pictured)

Toyota Vios Interior

Toyota Vios 

Nissan Almera Interior

Nissan Almera

Round Two – Sizing up the competition 

The visual revisions to the Persona’s exterior are quite extensive, so much so that the 4mm have been added to the overall length of the car. However, its footprint of 4,366mm by 1,722mm is still the smallest of this B-segment quartet. On the flipside, the Persona is the tallest car here (hello, headroom!), measuring 1,554mm at its peak – a whole 79mm taller than the second-tallest sedan, the Toyota Vios. Perhaps that’s why it always looks somewhat disproportionate – even the new 16-inch wheels look small against a side profile filled with glass and metal. 

Measuring 4,553mm long and 1,748mm wide, the Honda City is the biggest B-segment sedan on sale today. However, the Nissan Almera’s wheelbase is 20mm longer than the City (2,620mm versus 2,600mm) despite the it being 58mm shorter than the Honda. Wheelbase matters in practicality-oriented cars because they go a long way in determining headroom. And the Persona fares decently in this regard, with the 2,555mm wheelbase outstretching the Vios – the shortest and narrowest of the Japanese trio at 4,420mm by 1,730mm – this time by 5mm. 

The Persona continues to surprise in the cargo department, with its rated boot capacity of 510 litres being second only to the Honda City’s 519-litre trunk. The Toyota Vios and Nissan Almera trail with 506 litres and 482 litres of haulage respectively, although it’s worth noting that more is not necessarily, erm… more. The shape of the boot and how the wheel arches protrude into it could determine how useful each boot ultimately is, so pay close attention to these things the next time you’re in the showroom. 

Despite its compact footprint and the airiness in its rear, the Persona is also the heaviest car here. Even the most ‘kosong’ Standard variant, which tips the scale at 1,175kg, is heavier than all of its fully-equipped Japanese rivals. The heaviest of the non-national alternatives is the Vios G at 1,145kg; 95kg less than the Persona Premium. The Almera is the lightest car of the lot, weighing between 1,090kg and 1,114kg, which is somewhat expected from the car with the smallest engine. 

Honda City: 519 litres

Honda City: 519 litres

Proton Persona: 510 litres

Proton Persona: 510 litres

Nissan Almera: 506 litres

Nissan Almera: 506 litres

Round Three – Enough power for a Genting run?  

Speaking of engines, the Persona has the most sizeable mill in this shootout as the 1.6-litre naturally aspirated VVT four-banger soldiers on as the Persona’s sole power plant. Proton has dropped the five-speed manual previously offered on the Standard model while rumours of a possible four-speed automatic (à la Saga) have failed to materialise. So, like all of its Japanese rivals, the Persona continues to be driven by a CVT – not what enthusiasts would want to hear, but at least it’s a level playing field for all. Or is it? 

The Persona’s 109PS and 150Nm aren’t the kind of numbers we typically shout about here at TopGear. But it’s a decent amount of shove in a budget-conscious market starved of turbochargers and direct injection. In fact, the humble Proton is the second most powerful car behind the 121PS Honda City while its maximum twist is only 2Nm shy of the torque-iest car here and the only force-inducted one of the lot, the Nissan Almera. 

It’s worth noting that while most of the cars here only achieve maximum torque past 4,000rpm, the Nissan’s turbocharged three-banger has access to its 152Nm from as early as 2,400rpm; a much-needed edge to offset its meagre 100PS. The Nissan is also probably the most economical – Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) quotes 18.4km per litre, which is supposedly good for 650km on a single tank. Impressive, but it is the most expensive car of the four after all… 

Between the Japanese offerings, the 1.5-litre engines of the Honda and Toyota are probably better-rounded as far as day-to-day performance is concerned. The Vios 2NR-FE block is largely the same, dependable 107PS/140Nm engine you’d get in a Perodua Myvi, but arguably a touch more refined. And while the Honda’s i-VTEC mill may seem familiar at first, the one in the seventh-generation City is in fact a new dual-cam unit with an impressive 121PS and 145Nm at its disposal. The latter, paired with showy paddle shifters to ‘control’ the CVT, is probably the one to have, all things considered. 

Proton Persona GKUI Infotainment

Proton Persona 8.0-inch infotainment

Toyota Vios Apple CarPlay

Toyota Vios 8.0-inch infotainment

Round Four – Lights, camera(s), action! 

Onto tech and features, and the 2021 Proton Persona holds its own impressively well in this space. Like its costlier Japanese brethren, the Premium variant is equipped with full LED lighting up front (headlights and DRLs), digital climate control and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment (only 7.0-inch for the Almera). The Persona’s GKUI head unit seems to be the most connected and integrated system of the lot, as it packs built-in internet features like online navigation and music streaming, plus voice command that gives you control of the air-conditioning and driver window. There is one huge caveat, though: the jarring absence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.  

In the hundreds of cars we’ve driven in recent years, those with onboard systems that allow mobile devices to seamlessly pair via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto have always delivered a much richer user experience than native systems like Proton’s, no matter how clever they may be. And that’s exactly what you get in cars like the City, Vios and Almera, even if some of them look and feel like aftermarket double-DIN fitments. The Japanese sedans also have more speakers to match: up to six in the Almera and Vios and up to eight in the City versus the Persona’s four. 

Proton did well to include a reverse camera at the Persona’s price point, but the Vios and Almera have 360-degree feeds while the City offers Honda LaneWatch for the first time in the B-segment. Honda’s bread-and-butter model is also the only one here with remote engine start and rear air-con vents. Sadly, the non-hybrid variants miss out on Honda Sensing’s ADAS features, which are reserved exclusively for the City RS. 

If you insist on having electronic nannies like AEB, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert with your sub-RM100k, the Nissan Almera and Toyota Vios have you sorted, though it’s worth crediting ETCM for offering a standard ‘Nissan Intelligent Mobility’ spread across all three variants. The Almera is also the only one with telescopic steering while the Vios replies with the only pair of rear disc brakes you’ll see in this party. Although the Proton’s safety suite isn’t quite as comprehensive as the rest, its essentials – six airbags, ABS, traction control – are good enough to secure a five-star Asean NCAP safety rating. 

Proton Persona
2021 Proton Persona 1.6L
Price: RM45,200 to RM54,900
Engine: 1.6L 4cyl NA, 109PS, 150Nm
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Weight: 1,175-1,210kg
Boot capacity: 510 litres
Honda City
2021 Honda City 1.5L
Price: RM74,191 to RM86,561
Engine: 1.5L 4cyl NA, 121PS, 145Nm
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Weight: 1,125-1,135kg
Boot capacity: 519 litres
Toyota Vios
2021 Toyota Vios 1.5L
Price: RM74,623 to RM87,584
Engine: 1.5L 4cyl NA, 107PS, 140Nm
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Weight: 1,110-1,145kg
Boot capacity: 506 litres
Nissan Almera
2021 Nissan Almera 1.0L Turbo
Price: RM79,906 to RM91,300
Engine: 1.0L 3cyl turbo, 100PS, 152Nm
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Weight: 1,090-1,114kg
Boot capacity: 482 litres

Conclusion – The gap has shrunk 

If it seems like the Proton is always playing catch up with at least one of its Japanese rivals in every department, that’s because it is. From performance and packaging to tech and safety, the facelifted Persona has thoroughly improved as a jack of all trades but remains a master of none, not in the company of the City, Vios and Almera anyway. And that’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed about when everyone else commands a RM20k-RM40k premium, which is easily a year’s salary for many Malaysians that fall within the Persona’s demographic. Even if you can afford to top up, the fact that you can get two Standard Personas for the price of a top-spec Almera VLT certainly calls some priorities into question. 

If anything, Proton deserves plaudits for moving the yardstick and closing the gap that once separated the Persona from the breadwinners of some of the most successful foreign makes to ever sell cars in Malaysia. In doing so, the national carmaker has made features we used to wax lyrical about in RM200k cars in the not-too-distant past accessible to the rakyat. And although we can’t give the final word on things like quality and refinement until we drive the Persona, it’s inspiring to see the company elevating what few products it has in a limited showroom floor to the next level, even if it’s something that did not start life as a Geely. 

Proton Persona Premium