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Car reviews - Proton - Savvy - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Surprisingly agile handling - thanks to Lotus, quality rubber, inclusion of ABS, solid build quality, individual looks, good fuel economy
Room for improvement
Engine could do with more grunt, still some issues with minor trim, hard plastics, space-saver spare only, no steering wheel reach adjustment

17 Mar 2006

AT one point in our car-loving family history we owned a British Racing Green Mini Moke.

However, the only thing racy about it was the colour as the Moke was notoriously slow, moderately unreliable in the wet and had a contrary clutch that would occasionally refuse to engage gears, any gear, at the most inopportune moments – usually in front of school when we children were being dropped off.

Compounding its mechanical maladies were the convenience features or rather, the lack of convenience features.

The roll-up vinyl "doors" were drafty and flapped at any speed because the worn press-studs refused to clip into place, there was no heating in a North-East Victorian winter and the whole car was ridiculously unsafe with its lap-seatbelts, primitive canvas seats, 10-inch wheels and side-mounted petrol tank.

However, it had what we now know as the "fun-factor".

The Moke handled like a go-kart, the steering was pin-sharp and when it was going it caused a stir wherever it went.

Despite its many character flaws it remained in the family for three years until a pimply youth offered a ridiculous amount to take it off my father’s hands.

Many cars have since passed through family hands but few offered the same level of innocent fun and were as cheap to own and run as that Moke.

Its glossy British Racing Green duco and rorty centre-mounted exhaust meshed well with its modest stature and mighty personality. The memories, although faded, are etched into our consciousness.

Now that "fun factor" may have returned, in the form of the Proton Savvy.

But before you duck for cover or howl with derision, this is a Proton a budget buyer might just put on their shopping list.

Firstly, it’s well built secondly it has heaps of character and thirdly, it handles with the crispness only its Lotus-inspired engineers could have imparted on the Malaysian built five-door.

Visually it is interesting enough to lure buyers too, from the clamshell-style bonnet, smooth front-end, quirky kink on the shoulder line at the driver’s door and a distinctive centre-mounted exhaust.

A modern-day Moke it most certainly is not, however, the Savvy has enough personality and brio to entertain even the most jaded driver.

And the price is right. At $13,990 for the five-speed manual, this is Proton’s entry offering but the equipment levels are far from skimpy.

Dual airbags are expected but what surprises is the standard inclusion of ABS with EBD, parking sensors, 15-inch alloys and grippy Goodyear Eagle rubber.

Add power steering, front seatbelt pretensioners, alarm, air-conditioning, four-speaker in-dash CD stereo, central locking, electric front windows and front foglights and the Savvy presents as a strong contender in the light car class. Even the clutchless manual/auto is a mere $1000 extra.

The five-door hatch also has a 50/50 split fold-flat rear seats that lift luggage capacity from 207 (seats up) to 909 litres.

To put the Savvy into local context, one of its key rivals, the Holden Barina hatch is 170mm longer, 27mm wider and sits on a 85mm longer wheelbase.

Unlike the 1.6-litre Barina though, Proton power comes via a Renault-sourced 1.2-litre single-cam 16-valve four that delivers a modest 55kW at 5500rpm and 105Nm at 4250rpm.

Despite the equipment levels and improved quality, the Savvy’s modest size and engine capacity may count against it as it battles similarly priced Koreans and Japanese hatches.

One of its advantages is that it offers five doors over the entry three-door rivals, which cost marginally more.

The Savvy’s suspension is conventional for a car this size with MacPherson struts up front with a semi-independent torsion beam axle at the rear. Braking is disc/drum and quite capable of hauling the car up promptly.

On paper, the suspension looks quite conventional but thanks to Lotus (yes Lotus, which is owned by Proton), engineers have injected some suspension savvy into the car’s dynamics that would not be out of place in a larger and far-sportier car.

On test around Sydney, with some particularly rough roads on the Northern Beaches that showed off how competent the suspension was, the Savvy’s ride and handling stood out for the way the car coped.

Even though the Renault four felt tight and underdone, what the car lacked in urge it made up for in suspension tuning with a degree of compliance and sporty handling unexpected in a car of this price.

The light-weight hatch rode out all manner of bumps and undulations with a level of suppleness that belied its 953kg kerb weight.

Absent too was any overly harsh suspension rebound and pitchiness experienced in some short-wheelbase cars.

All in all, it is one well-sorted chassis matched by crisp steering and a well-weighted clutch and gearshift. There was plenty of steering feedback and the weighting was spot on through the oddly square-rimed wheel.

Obviously the years of Lotus expertise have been put to good use. That said, the car’s modest power will never overwhelm the chassis and it could quite easily handle more grunt.

With a few more kilometres under its belt we suspect the 1.2-litre four will free up but its newness meant it was sluggish away from the traffic lights and in-gear acceleration was, at best, modest rather than adequate.

The upside of a modest engine and lean weight is good fuel economy. Proton claims the Savvy will deliver a frugal 4.6L/100km for the five-speed manual, providing a 900km cruising range from the 40-litre tank.

Apart from fuel economy, it is also a reasonably quiet cruiser. At highway speeds the engine is well insulated, even though it was spinning at a high 3200rpm around 110km/h. Any wind rustle was confined to the exterior mirrors.

Which brings us to the cabin.

We’ve had bad experiences with previous Protons. Ill-fitting trim, brittle switchgear and generally low-rent interior finishes.

But the Savvy changes that perception and the car is a big improvement over some other Protons we’ve experienced.

It is the first Proton to have gone through the tough German quality assessment program provided by TUV and it shows. At TUV’s behest, Proton sacked poorly performing suppliers and instituted tougher quality controls.

The result is a well-screwed together interior and more solidly built car.

The dashboard is sensibly designed with Lotus-styled orange-faced dials and a neat centre console with decent switchgear.

The front seats are shapely if a little narrow in the seatback, while the standard of fit and finish is a notch up from previous Protons.

The hatch is also commendably strong – Proton says it gets a three-star Euro NCAP crash rating – and the doors shut with a commendable thud.

Despite the quality improvements some minor niggles persist. Hard plastics abound it is possible to see the wiring loom behind the glove box cavity and the rear carpet in the luggage area is thin and flimsy.

The space-saver spare also marks the car down, but it is not alone there. And the steering wheel is not adjustable for reach.

Overall, the Proton can be justifiably proud of its newcomer, even if its local operation has a modest sale forecast of just 100 a month.

If quality levels continue to improve, this wee hatch may help change any negative preconceived ideas about the Malaysian brand. Driving it too will change your mind about budget motoring.

The fun factor may well be back.

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