Following the Perdana and Persona launched earlier, Proton will launch the all-new Saga on Thursday, September 28. Three all-new models in one year (and possibly a fourth one before the year ends) – that’s unusual for any car company and certainly unprecedented for Proton. While many companies may launch a new model every year and perhaps facelifts of a few models as well, launching all-new models presents challenges to the factory as well as suppliers. Normally, workers will take a while to get used to assembling a new model so to cope with three will mean that Proton will have to tighten its QC processes.
While the company has plenty of capacity at two factories to meet greater demand, the question will be whether the suppliers of parts and systems can respond to the new demand speedily. They have to be certain of the demand before they would be willing to invest in additional production equipment and hire more workers, especially since they have been ‘burnt’ in the past by over-optimistic numbers. For instance, they were told to supply parts to enable Proton to sell 600 Juaras a month… but the actual sales turned out to be way less than that number.
Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time as you would be more keen to know about the all-new Saga. This is a significant model for Proton and one which Malaysians have a special affection for because it was the first national car. Although Proton did not intend to produce it in one generation for so long, it turned out that the first generation remained in production for 23 years (from 1985 until the last unit rolled out in January 2008). The second and current generation has been around for 8+ years which is longer than global industry standards which are around 5 years. Proton is working towards a 5-year product cycle for the third generation that will be launched shortly.
As we can only show you official images supplied by Proton – which do not include the whole car – you’ll have to accept a description of the new design for now. While Proton Design, headed by Azlan Othman, has no special name for its design language, it is clear that there has been consistency in how each new model since the Preve has been styled. If you place the cars nose-to-tail and study the profiles, you will see that there are common elements which have also evolved.
With the new Saga, the designers have stretched the car out to give a more tapered form which is beneficial to aerodynamics. The overall length increase of 74 mm has come about by extending the front and rear overhangs (the extension of the bodywork beyond the front and rear wheels) while retaining the same wheelbase. The height of the car has also been lowered by 11 mm, which has positive implications on handling as well as aerodynamics.
One of the big challenges for the design team was the requirement to use up to 60% of the same parts from the previous Saga. This is quite a high percentage but for Proton, it is crucial to controlling costs. Its volume is not particularly large so it does not enjoy the same economies of scale as the bigger players. Therefore, in order to get those economies of scale, it has to maximise the volume for many parts and this means carrying them over to use in another model as well.
But this is done by other carmakers too, and the percentage varies. To come up with things like new door handles or mirrors would mean extra cost and for most customers, it is not of great importance. Besides, many of the carry-over items are usually out of sight so it makes no difference anyway.
The styling of the new Saga follows the same concept as the new Persona with a 2.5-box profile. A strong character line runs along the side and gives the car a chiselled look while the rear end – which is the best view of the new car – has a very classy arrangement of the various styling elements. It’s such a big difference from the previous Saga that it makes the older model look outdated.
Of the three new models Proton has launched this year, the new Saga is, in our opinion, the best effort. It has a fresh new look with a bolder appearance and yet maintains a styling link to the other current models.
Utilising the same platform means that many areas are fixed, eg the seating position, the vents, etc. But this has not prevented the interior designers from remodelling the cabin quite substantially. There’s a completely new dashboard design which looks more ‘mature’ with a centre section that appears to ‘slide out’ from the middle.
Texturing and finishing are things which make a big difference to the perception of quality in a car. Proton Design has had a long time to build up its expertise in this aspect and come a long way from the cheap feel in the Waja. Today’s Proton models have high quality textures and finishes in most areas although the vents next to the doors could be better. There are also exposed bolts on the floor which are visible to rear passengers – something which gives the impression of ‘poor finishing’. In fact, bare metal is usually avoided and if the bolts cannot be covered, then the next best thing would be to paint them black.
The features list is typical for this class of cars and rear passengers get USB recharging points which are located at the rear end of the centre console. There are two voltage levels to suit new and older phones and there’s also another USB port up front for infotainment connectivity. No cigarette lighter is provided but the traditional socket is still present to provide power for portable devices.
The boot is very deep with a slightly larger volume than before (+ 7 litres) with the extended overhang. If required, the single-piece backrest can be folded down to extend the floor length to carry those long items from IKEA home.
Understanding that safety is very important to buyers nowadays, Proton has made sure that the Saga is fully equipped with all the safety features that are presently available in the class. The top variant event comes with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and in later years when this feature becomes mandatory like airbags, Proton can easily include it in the other variants. Incidentally, ASEAN NCAP is said to have evaluated the new model and it qualifies for 4 stars (1 star better than before).
The top variant also has a rearview camera and the display is shown on the inside rearview mirror. It’s a small display but clear enough for the driver to spot a small child or obstacle behind the car.
The new Saga will be available only with a 1.3-litre 94 bhp/120 Nm engine with variable valve timing, a variant of the 1.6-litre engine in the new Persona. This engine has received a lot of updating and improvements to enhance fuel efficiency.
Likewise, the CVT from Punch has also been refined as much as possible to address criticisms. For those who prefer shifting themselves, there is still the option of a 5-speed manual transmission.
The suspension layout is the same, of course, but we spotted a strut bar in the engine bay which was not present in the previous Saga. This bar helps to reduce body flex so the vehicle dynamics can be better. While enthusiasts will be delighted that Proton has thrown this in for free, so to speak, its value to the average Saga owner may not be significant. Of course, any improvement in handling should still be useful as it would also benefit safety. Much of the suspension tuning for the new Saga focussed on making the ride more comfortable and also reducing the steering effort.
FIRST DRIVING IMPRESSIONS
As with the Perdana and Persona, Proton invited the media to get first impressions of the new model at its own test course. As the driving was done only on the banked circuit, little can be said about the handling (and we were forbidden to try and high-speed weaving) so we’ll have to wait for a test-drive later on.
However, it was very apparent that the engineers have finally been able to get the powertrain to a level of refinement that will make driving the new Saga a real pleasure. The engine is more responsive than the old unit and the CVT doesn’t have that lethargic character which was the disappointing aspect of the previous Saga. Some hesitation was felt during sudden kickdown to accelerate quickly but it better than before.
Various detail changes and improvements in the engine bay have lowered the noise and vibration levels so that the cabin has a quieter ambience.
Considering that the engineers would have had to work on three models at the same time, they have done a very good job with the new Saga. This is a vital product for the company and it expects to sell 5,000 units a month so it must be good enough to win people over. From our first impressions, we think it’s definitely going to be a winner and hopefully, Proton will not frustrate customers by making them wait a long time for their cars. The quality will also have to be consistently good, something which the new CEO seems confident of as he is more focussed on getting new products into the showrooms and making the ownership experience better.
You can place bookings at any Proton showroom from today (Saturday, September 24) and we’ve been told that the prices of the 4 variants offered will range from RM37,000 to RM46,000. The official launch will be on September 28, 2016.