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Car reviews - Proton - Waja - 1.6X sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Handling characteristics, long standard equipment list, external appearance, interior and boot space
Room for improvement
Underpowered engine, manual shift action, quality

11 Apr 2002

IT IS true that this is the most complete Proton ever built, a car constructed from the ground up on its Malaysian home soil and which at last helps the company break free from the perception that it is a builder of old-generation Mitsubishis.

But to describe the Waja medium-sized sedan - as Proton has done - as a world-class car equal to rivals from Japan and Europe is stretching the truth.

It has a degree of presence with its clean, smooth and conservative shape, made memorable with the bonnet tip oozing down over the chrome-bordered grille.

And it has a comprehensive list of features which in the "X"-rated form tested here includes cowhide on the seats and doors, climate control air-conditioning, mock timber panelling, high-grade stereo, traction control, four airbags, ABS brakes, alarm, a warranty lasting one million kilometres - we could go on like this for some time.

We must stress, however, that a smart outer skin and lots of features contained within do not give the Waja - a Malay word meaning "steely warrior" - an automatic ticket into the big league.

There is the matter of performance which, until a Renault-sourced 1.8-litre engine arrives, is limited to a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder unit producing 76kW at 6000rpm and 140Nm of torque at 2750rpm.

There are also concerns over quality and smaller but equally niggling aspects like driver comfort.

And there is the price: at launch, Waja was priced at about $28,000 for the baseline 1.6 model and $30,000 for the 1.6X. Slow sales saw the sticker dropped by up to $5000, with the entry level 1.6 now set at $22,990 and the 1.6X at $25,490, plus $1850 for the auto.

Despite the absence of a "handling by Lotus" sticker on the Waja's rump, the most positive aspects we found with the car derived from Proton's 80 per cent ownership of the renowned British sports car and engineering house.

As it has done with the Satria GTi, Lotus has again stamped its mark on what is otherwise quite an ordinary vehicle.

This is more than just marketing hype. Using MacPherson struts at the frond end and a multi-link configuration at the rear, the suspension produces a firm ride that maintains excellent control and does a competent job of dispensing with road irregularities - even rough stuff dished out on crook Australian roads.

The ride never becomes harsh, suspension noise is kept in check and bodyroll is not a factor. Grip (and, at times, noise) levels, on the other hand, are high from the 195/55 tyres on 15-inch rims, though understeer refuses to emerge until the car is pushed well beyond the norm.

The steering, too, impresses with its weighting, feedback and response at speed - and we like the feel of the thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel - though some might find the steering too heavy during slower-speed driving around town.

There is no kickback through the tiller across chopped-up corners, however vibration will make its way up to the driver's hands.

With such excellent handling and a well-sorted ride, it seems criminal that the Waja owner is lumped with such an underpowered engine.

Where a humble Corolla, for example, can find 84kW per tonne in the power-to-weight stakes, the range-topping Waja tips the scales at just 64kW/tonne. Claimed acceleration from rest to 100km/h is a believable 12.2 seconds.

Sourced from Mitsubishi, the engine struggles at low and mid-range engine speeds, and though it gets a wriggle on at higher revs the noise, vibration and harshness that arrives about 5000rpm will send the driver back each and every time.

Frequent use of the standard five-speed manual gearbox will keep the Waja running with most suburban and highway traffic, but the shift action is notchy and slow, and fuel consumption increases markedly when the driver decides to stir things along.

Even as it stands now, Proton's claimed figure of 7.7 litres per 100km (combined) is unrealistic. Premium unleaded fuel is also called for at the pump.

The spacious interior features light colours, a modern design, some soft plastics across the dash and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. But the heavily angled centre console tends to exclude the front passenger, the front seats are flat and unsupportive and some of the switchgear is brittle and uninviting to use.

Higher-mounted temperature controls would have been welcome, as would steering wheel reach adjustment, cruise control, better radio reception, larger door bins, a driver's vanity mirror, less-reflective instruments and - a problem specific to our test car, we hope - dash plastics which were starting to peel off from their base.

Indeed, there were other examples of poor-fitting interior trim and a number of creaks, squeaks and rattles that emerged during our time with the car.

Rear seat space is good in all directions bar legroom and all seating positions employ a lap-sash seatbelt. Only the centre rear passenger misses out on a head restraint in a position which doubles as a pull-down armrest with integrated cupholders.

Boot space is generous and luggage capacity extendable with the 60/40 split-fold rear bench, however, the underfloor storage compartment is a clumsy design - bootlid hinges cut into the available space and the spare tyre hidden under the floor is a temporary fix.

The Waja might be the most complete Proton ever but its shortcomings force it to become just another unplaced horse in the race.

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