In the early part of 1985, a new Toyota Corolla 1.3LE cost just under RM20,000, a price that was considered somewhat expensive (at that time). Although cars seemed cheap enough earlier, their prices started to creep up, limiting the motorisation of Malaysian society. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then Prime Minister, did not like this situation and as part of his industrialisation programme, he had a National Car developed which would be affordable for the masses. This car was the Proton Saga and with a combination of tax exemptions and other privileges, it retailed for RM16,647.62, about 17% cheaper than the Corolla. Even if you added in an air-conditioner (RM1,500) and a radio/cassette player (RM850), the price was still lower than other 1.3-litre Japanese models.
The low price plus a sense of pride in having our own car guaranteed Proton success virtually from the first day the car went on sale. Tyre-kickers and door-slammers came away impressed with the model and certainly, it was comparable to other offerings in the same class where equipment was concerned.
And so, like the Corolla accelerated the motorisation of Japanese society in the 1960s, the Saga can be said to have put many more Malaysians on four wheels.
That first generation remained in production for 22 years, perhaps longer than planned. It’s never been known whether Proton had a plan to come out with a second generation earlier but at certain points, especially during recessionary periods, its sales jumped up and so it was hard to retire. In fact, even in the late 1990s, demand for the Saga was so great that Proton had to commission AMI (the factory that assembled Fords, BMWs and Mazdas) to carry out contract assembly of the Iswara Aeroback to have enough cars to supply the market.
But in time, it was clear that the original design, updated many times, had reached the end of its life and so a second generation was introduced in early 2008. This generation had all the necessary updates to bring the Saga into the 21st century and as a core model of Proton, it served its purpose. Though management changes within the company saw product planning interrupted and revised, there was a clear sense that the Saga could not be allowed to be sold in the same form until 2030. Even the Gen2 and Persona, launched during the 2000s, were considered dated as the auto industry is one where there is constant updating. A company that cannot or will not refresh its model line at intervals of 5 – 8 years will see declining sales and that has been apparent for Proton (apart from other reasons).
And so we have the 3rd generation today, launched with great hope that this most significant of Proton models will be the one that propels the company back to its former glory and position at the top of the market. Proton expects to deliver 5,000 new Sagas every month which is the average number of vehicles (all models) that they have sold each month this year. Thus, sales figures from now on should be able to reach 10,000 units a month, especially with the new Persona and then the Suzuki Ertiga-based MPV that will be launched before the year ends. With two factories available for production, there should be no excuse of insufficient production capacity and customers having to wait for a long time.
Recalling how the first Saga was priced to make it affordable to the masses, Proton has again does its best to make it the most affordable sedan in the market. Of course, it cannot be below RM20,000 like the first one but at between RM36,800 to RM45,800, the new Saga is still affordable and what’s more significant is that its equipment level is comparable to cars costing more, especially in the area of safety.
As we’ve said before, Proton’s special privileges as a National Car which were to have helped it cement its dominant position in the market are like a ‘double-edged sword’. Having tax exemptions and special funding has helped the company offset its production costs and sell its cars cheaper than others but at the same time, being the product of a national corporation, the public expects that the prices must not be high. After all, they are like ‘shareholders’ in the company as the billions the government has given Proton comes from taxes paid so they expect ‘preferential pricing’ when they buy a Proton. Thus, Proton is expected to provide a model as good as other cars in the same class – but at a lower price.
How long this situation remains depends on various factors, including the brand strength, but since the Preve, the company has worked hard to ensure that spec-wise, its models are comparable in their respective classes and cost less. The current management is confident that there should be no quality issues, one of the things that dragged Proton down over the past 20 years. But we can only repeat what they tell us as we can’t afford to buy cars for long-term tests nor experience the promised better aftersales experience. If your experience is still disappointing, do let the CEO know.
Anyway, let’s move on to what you can expect from this third edition of the original Malaysian car. For starters, as the pictures show, the styling of the car is much more dynamic looking than the one it replaces. Although it uses the same platform as the second generation (many carmakers use one platform for at least two generations of a model), Azlan Othman and his team at Proton Design have done such a good job that you will see it as an entirely different car rather than just a ‘re-skin’.
Though having its own character, the new Saga also has certain design DNA that started from the Preve. Each model since then has been an ‘evolution’ of the same theme, adjusted to suit the size of the car. With the new Saga, the overall length has been increased by 74 mm and this has come from making the front and rear overhangs (the sections ahead and behind the front and rear wheels) longer. There’s also said to be 9 mm extra width but this is a negligible number (just 4.5 mm on either side).
The lengthening as well as lowering (by 11 mm) of the roof line gives the car a sleeker look; the previous generation was a bit ‘bulbous’ and by comparison looks like an ‘ugly duckling’ now. Part of the reason for the sleeker profile, besides better looks, is also to reduce the aerodynamic drag (Cd) to help the Saga hit the targeted fuel consumption.
Proton has decided that it will restrict the Saga to a 1.3-litre engine and the Persona to a 1.6-litre engine, a good move to avoid cannibalisation. Both engines have their origins in the CAMPRO engine programme and have received upgrades over the past 10 years to improve their efficiency and output. The big change was the addition of variable valve timing in the cylinder head and as a result, the engine is so great a difference from the earlier CAMPRO units that Proton no longer uses that engine family name. In fact, there isn’t even a fancy name for the current engine family other than 1.3-litre VVT (and 1.6-litre VVT).
Similar to the engine in the Iriz, the one for the Saga also produces 94 bhp/120 Nm, though being a few years later, it has also received further internal changes and enhancements to improve its fuel efficiency. Similarly, the CVT is the latest one which has been reworked as much as possible to address criticisms. It’s unfortunate that in its attempt to moderate costs, Proton chose a lower-priced transmission which spoilt the driving experience when it was first used in the previous Saga and subsequent models.
With the new VVT engine, the Saga is claimed to have fuel consumption that is lower by between 12% and 14% and with the 5-speed manual transmission, the claimed figure is 18.5 kms/litre when driven at a constant 90 km/h. To ‘persuade’ drivers to be more economical, there’s ECO-Drive Assist which monitors the driving style and tells the driver (via a light on the instrument panel) when he or she is driving economically. The feature itself does nothing to reduce consumption but it uses psychology, challenging the driver to get that green light on as often and as long as possible. For some people, it might work while others may just dismiss it.
For those who don’t care about saving fuel and leave the traffic lights at full throttle, the good news is that you’ll get to 100 km/h 0.8 seconds quicker than before with the manual transmission and 1.4 seconds quicker with the CVT, it is claimed. But don’t blame Proton then if you cannot get 18.5 kms/litre!
The suspension layout is the same, of course, but a strut bar will be seen in the engine bay connecting the left and right suspension towers. This bar, not found in the previous Saga, 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.
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 evaluated the new model in July 2016 and it qualifies for 4 stars (1 star better than before). [Click here to read ASEAN NCAP’s report in more detail]
Perhaps at one time, a carmaker would have been able to get away with giving less items if it charged less for the car. These days, however, such an approach will see poor sales because Malaysian buyers are rather spoilt and they want ‘everything’… but are not prepared to pay the full price. So the car companies have had no choice but to be more generous in the equipment levels.
For Proton, as mentioned earlier, it’s even more challenging since it must match others in the same size class but it cannot charge the same price. Nevertheless, with the Saga, it has done commendably to offer a decent list of standard equipment at lower prices. And even the dashboard has been remodelled to something more modern and clean, while the cabin has an overall feel of high quality. Incidentally, the top variant even has a rearview camera and the display is shown on the inside rearview mirror and it’s a small display but clear enough for the driver to spot a small child or obstacle behind the car.
For those who missed out earlier report with first driving impressions, this is a summary of what we said after the brief experience: “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.”
With the launch of the new Saga today, Proton’s CEO declared that this day will be remembered as the time when Proton’s fortunes turned around and from this day forward, the company will be seeing better times. We certainly hope so, the government certainly expects so, and Malaysians would also like to see their national car company being on a much better footing rather than being a ‘sick patient’ that constantly needs help. The original Saga started Proton and now this third edition has what it takes to kick-start it to the success it aims for.