Test drive report: Proton Saga (part II)

We take Proton’s flavour of the month out for a drive to Ipoh. Verdict: Highly rated. There are issues, however…

ProtonSaga 1

What’s all this ‘people’s car’ talk?
The Saga shoulders a huge responsibility, simply for being the ‘people’s car’. Back in 1985 when it was first introduced, this basically meant that it needed to be cheap and reliable. Today, things are much more complicated; every single component needs to be crash-tested, fit into a particular ‘design philosophy’, and under much more scrutiny from the marketing department (add accountants into the mix too).

Does the new Saga fit this description? For the most part, yes. And it does it well.

ProtonSaga 11

How so?
Let’s start with the easy-to-digest-factor – price. With the base model Standard variant (metallic) with manual transmission starting from RM34,420, it’s quite sensible. After all, on the face of it we are getting a much better looking Saga than the one it replaces. Okay, that’s not quite hard to do since the BLM was on the uncomfortable side of “Urmm…”.

So now all recent model launches (Perdana, Persona and Saga) share the same basic look – a handsome one.

But how about those four little rubber things?
We’re talking tyres here. Yes, it looks underwhelming and slightly out of proportion in relation to the body. But in this Standard variant and its 13 inch wheels, it helps to make the sticker price and subsequent tyre replacement cost down. You have options – in the form of the Executive variant and its 14 inch tyres, or 15 inch with the Premium.

Fair enough. So is the cabin larger than the previous Saga?
As mentioned in our previous first impressions report, roof height has increased but that was never an issue in the car it replaces. The same can be said of rear legroom; with no change to wheelbase the new Saga seems to be just as spacious as before.

Width appears to have improved – indeed the 2016 Saga which is based on the previous-gen is now 9mm wider.

In short, it feels roomy, with welcoming doors that open very wide making ingress/egress much easier.

How’s the performance?
Let’s put it this way – if the original Campro-CVT powertrain started out like this, Proton would now be in much better standing. It’s called the CVT2+ gearbox and, to me, is a large contributor to what makes this Saga a much better vehicle. It’s quiet, and thankfully does not advertise itself as a stepless box. Honda and Nissan (Subaru too) have the best CVT gearboxes in the business right now; Proton is closing in.

It’s got spunk too, considering it’s an atmo-breathing 1.3-litre with a powerband and throttle response that is at ease with city or highway driving. You can modulate it during heavy traffic for smoothness, and at the top end can deliver, errr, sensible cruising speeds. Let’s just say 150-160kph is a number which the Saga won’t feel troubled at all.

ProtonSaga 17

No complaints here. In the scope of ride quality, not much difference from the previous BLM. In fact, why are we talking about this anyway? It’s been a long time since Proton ever came out with a model that does not ride well. Next.

NVH? As good as it gets for a RM33,000 to RM38,000 car. Nevertheless, the Basic variant I drove to Ipoh seemed considerably calmer than the more expensive Executive I drove back to KL in. A nasty wind noise intruded the latter’s cabin from 130-ish kph onwards. I am guessing this is some sort of quality issue, like a hole in the firewall was not secured properly. Of course this is just a guess. The noise however, is real. Quality issues; not what I wanted to learn from the new Saga.

ProtonSaga 36

Hmm, any more surprises?
Nothing major. Switchgear quality is not unlike what you get in the Iriz, for example. My concern is more on what Proton felt they needed to sacrifice to get the price point wanted. Some are negligible, at least to me: power window does not have auto up/down function, and rear seats do not have headrests.

Others, I simply do not agree with. This includes lack of audible/visual SBR (seat belt reminder) for front passenger. The audible warning for an unbuckled driver’s seat belt is absurdly faint too.

Top of the list is lack of ABS for the Basic variant (Executive and Premium does offer it, I must add). I thought we’ve gone past this, Proton.

Every variant gets an equal amount of airbags? Fine.

ESC, traction control and hill-hold assist only for the Premium variant? Not ideal yet acceptable.

... But no ABS? Maybe sometimes the decision makers should read road-crash case studies just as they do UN regulations.

Interesting. Moving on, what are the Saga’s best qualities?
Simply put, it is a significantly better product. Not just compared to the previous generation Saga, but also in the larger view of things. At this price you’d be silly to not put it under consideration. They’ve kept the BLM’s spaciousness and done away with its forgettable looks. Powertrain’s annoying sound and seemingly lack of punch has been noticeably taken care of.

Our Executive variant features two USB ports, so you can charge your gadgets while accessing tunes already stored in them. Not the best output from the OE speakers, but that’s a small problem. The higher grade variants sound much better, I am told.

ProtonSaga 29

The compromise on certain features (no ABS, no passenger-side SBR) as mentioned before. Also are other minor issues – there’s a lack of storage which is a fact exaggerated by omission of a centre armrest. No doubt for the need to cut cost.

‘Modern’ cars have slim and shallow glove compartments, the same with the Saga, and I don’t like it. And then there is that small slot on the door card arm rest which no man has ever managed to justify (look below). Is it for coins? Probably, but that’s too shallow and impractical.

ProtonSaga 2

Another journalist pointed out that there is no indication as to which side the fuel filler cap is located (as seen below).

ProtonSaga 4

So what does this all mean?
So much potential. Indeed the latest Proton Saga is a good buy. It has so much going for it; plus a nameplate that at the very core tugs at the heart strings of millions of Malaysians. For the most part, people want the Saga name to succeed and by extension, success for Proton. There are some flaws (not serious ones, though certainly not insignificant) and yes, they need to be addressed.

And I know that some are very interested to know about the car’s fuel efficiency. Honestly, you’ll have to wait a while longer. There were large chunks of time spent driving at unrealistic speeds, so it is far from representative. If you must know, the Saga – at largely high speeds – does not score highly. Not actually a surprise, of course. It’s a 1.3L, after all.

Next time, we will see if the manufacturer claim of 5.4L per 100km is close to realistic. Wait for it.

Ahmad Zulizwan
Author: Ahmad Zulizwan
Take it to the track, please.