After 21 years, Proton’s flagship model has been totally changed although the new Perdana is referred to as a ‘fourth generation’ model of the nameplate. The way Proton sees it, the first generation was the original one that was cloned from the Mitsubishi Eterna in 1992 and then ‘enhanced’ with Proton’s own engineering input in 2003 to become the second generation. The third generation is the one that was adapted from the Honda Accord and introduced in late 2013. Only 3,000 units of this generation were made with largely cosmetic changes (although some special versions were also created) and they were assembled at Honda Malaysia’s plant in Melaka under contract.

The model launched today is considered the fourth generation although it sits on the same platform as the third generation. There is justification to regarding this as a new generation since the amount of work by Proton R&D that has gone into it is substantial to the extent that it has no resemblance to an Accord. It follows a practice which Proton has used in the past – minimal changes to quickly get the model into the market, followed by more extensive changes that ‘Protonise’ it more significantly. Incidentally, it’s only the third nameplate in Proton’s range that has seen more than one generation being produced although Proton has launched about a dozen models in 31 years.

Clockwise from top left: First generation introduced in 1995, enhanced second generation launched in 2003, and a special long-wheelbase variant of the third generation which was unveiled in 2013

Unlike the original Perdana, this new one has been adapted from a different model. The previous generation of the Honda Accord was chosen when Proton was looking around for a replacement for the original which had been around for a rather long time and was really a product developed in the early 1990s. There was a large Mitsubishi considered and that was dropped and then we heard about discussions with Nissan for a model called the Fuga, and that too never went further than discussions. Then Honda suddenly came into the picture, probably because DRB-HICOM, which had taken over Proton (again) by then, has a close relationship with the Japanese carmaker. This provided an opportunity to explore the possibility of adapting the Accord platform for use as the new Perdana and Honda must have seen it as a good business opportunity.

8th generation Honda Accord from which the new Perdana is adapted

The initial deal was that 3,000 units would be mildly altered and assembled at Honda Malaysia’s plant. These were intended primarily for the government fleet which has been using Perdanas for a long time (production of the Perdana ceased in 2010). If Proton did not come up with a successor model that was also appropriate for a minister to travel in (obviously, a minister or even a director-general of a ministry cannot be using a Preve), then locally-assembled models of non-national brands would have to be used – and that was deemed unacceptable.

At the same time, a deal was also made for use of the platform beyond those 3,000 units and Proton would adapt it further although the powertrains would still be from Honda.

New powertrains will be introduced sometime in 2017 and these are expected to be Proton’s own. Proton cannot export the model until the new powertrains are in use, and that means the Perdana can only be sold outside Malaysia from 2018.

Perhaps to limit the competition for its own model (even though it is a generation ahead), Honda has set a maximum production number of 7,000 units a year for the model in its current form. It’s not clear if that means only 3,500 units this year as 6 months have passed, though. In any case, the company expects to sell 3,000 units by the end of the year, said Dato’ Ahmad Fuaad Kenali, the new CEO of Proton, He added that 900 bookings have been received since order-taking began in February.

When the original Perdana was launched, Proton was not sure how it would be received as it was the first attempt at a large model so the projections were modest. But at around RM90,000 at that time in the mid-1990s, it was a fantastic deal and so many orders came in that the waiting list stretched to a year! Given the pricing of the new Perdana which starts from RM113,888, it is likely that this new generation could also draw a lot of buyers. Like the original Perdana, its Japanese DNA would be a plus point, making it good value for money. The corporate sector will probably be a big customer as companies have been trimming their budgets and a lower-priced executive car would be most welcome.

So let’s move on to the car itself which, as you can already see from the pictures, is very different from the one launched earlier. Azlan Othman and his team of designers have certainly done a good job on the exterior design while having to work with the constraints of a structure that was developed much earlier without their input. There are many areas and dimensions, especially the door openings, which have ‘hard points’ and these cannot be altered because they are crucial to structural design and integrity.

When you look at the car from the side, you see something totally different from the Accord, a sleeker profile with a rear end that brings to mind the Jaguar XJ. It’s a look which would be unlikely from a Honda and gives a sporty flavour which is not inappropriate. While they could not alter the platform, having a redesigned upper body meant that all the other elements like the headlights and rear lights could be totally changed.

The front end has some semblance of the Accord and the similarity could be due to the need to maintain similar openings for the correct amount of cooling air and aerodynamic considerations. Nevertheless, there is still a bit of the Proton corporate design with the signature ‘Proton Wings’.

The rear end appears rather fussy with a number of different elements. The diffuser below bumper level looks like it could do with some restyling and the splitting of the rear lighting units (right) between the outside bodywork and the bootlid is never a good idea unless build quality can be guaranteed 100%. This is because even a slight variation in the installation of the bootlid will result in the rear light elements being misaligned – and it will be obvious to people who follow behind the car. That may seem to be a small matter but it is something which will invite negative remarks like ‘See, they talk about quality and they can’t even get those lights aligned properly’.

The mechanical aspects are pretty much the same as the 8th generation Accord which was sold in Malaysia between 2008 and 2013. The locally-assembled model came with 2.0-litre and 2.4-litre i-VTEC engines and these two engines are being supplied to Proton for the Perdana. The 2-litre unit is a SOHC cylinder head while the 2.4-litre has a DOHC valvetrain. The engines have identical outputs as those that were used in the Accord before – 154 ps/189 Nm for the smaller engine and 178 ps/222 Nm for the larger one.

Where in the past, Proton tried to mask the origins of engines from other companies by putting its own engine covers on, it seems that there is no intention to do the same with the Perdana. We understand that although Honda did not object to not having its ‘identity’ visible in the engine bay, Proton chose to retain the original covers so you see ‘i-VTEC’ for the 2.4 engine and ‘HONDA’ on the top of the 2.0 engine. There’s nothing shameful about that and it’s certainly better than having something like ‘P-TEC’ or ‘CAMPRO-TEC’.

Only a 5-speed automatic transmission is available and this too comes from Honda. One thing about many Honda automatic transmissions is that there are few options for manual shifting, unlike other cars. In the Perdana 2.0, there’s only D and S modes with no manual selection possible but the driver of the Perdana 2.4 has control of gear selection with paddle shifters.

The suspension consists of independent double wishbones at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. The rack and pinion steering system is still the conventional type which uses a hydraulic pump instead of an electric motor providing assistance, which is becoming more common in today’s new models.

Both variants come with alloy wheels of similar size (17 inches diameter) but there is some differentiation in the finishing as the ones on the 2.0 have a single tone while those on the 2.4 have a dual tone. The same tyre sizes of 225/50 are fitted for both variants and we understand that Proton worked closely with Goodyear Malaysia to tune the Eagle EfficientGrip tyres specially for the Perdana. Incidentally, the Accord also used Goodyear tyres as original fitment but a different pattern.

Goodyear Eagle EfficientGrip tyres are fitted as standard on 17-inch wheels for both variants

The 8th generation Accord was the largest Accord ever produced up till then and the size dictated by demands from Asian customers who like spacious interiors. As the structure and platform have been adopted for the Perdana without change, the same attributes would also be evident in the cabin (and Proton Design even developed a long-wheelbase variant with more space inside).

Much of the interior follows the Accord although Proton Design altered the colour themes and trim features. And although there were all the fixed positions for the vents, switches, meters, etc, there was still some modification made in the centre area of the dashboard to accommodate a second display screen.

This is where the Proton Infotainment system has been inserted so the dashboard design in the Perdana could be said to be ‘in between’ the 8th generation and 9th generation Accords; the 8th generation one had just one screen in the recess at the top while the current 9th generation has two screens. For the larger screen at the top, there’s a GPS navigation system supplied by Lockatoo, a local supplier which provides systems to Proton as well as Perodua.

Because of the period when the Accord was developed, there’s no pushstart button to fire up the engine and although Proton could have modified it, the extra cost may not have been worth it. So the conventional key system is used and drivers have the pleasure of turning the key to start the engine. But there are things like dual-zone air-conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, switches on the steering wheel and a reverse camera as standard for both variants. The differentiation between the 2.0 and 2.4 in terms of equipment is not great, which should please those who buy the cheaper variant.

In the area of safety, the new Perdana has not been evaluated by ASEAN NCAP yet although it should do well since the original model – with European specs – scored maximum stars in the EuroNCAP crash test. The Perdana would also have Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) Body Structure which provides significantly enhanced occupant protection in a variety of real-world crash conditions. A front-mounted polygonal main frame is designed to prevent cabin deformation by distributing forces through multiple major load bearing pathways – and away from the passenger compartment. This is particularly important where a frontal collision occurs between vehicles of differing heights, weights or frame construction.

It’s good to see that Proton has virtually identical safety features for both variants, rather than being so cost-conscious (which is its current mindset) that the cheaper variant gets the minimum required. Even front parking sensors and auto headlamps are provided for the Perdana 2.0 and the only thing it does not have, which the 2.4 has, is Electronic Stability Control (ESC). Perhaps when Proton puts in its own powertrain next year and reduces its cost, it could use some of the savings to also include ESC for the 2.0.

Proton gave the media a chance to drive the new Perdana briefly at its test track some weeks ago and as it was brief (and also done in the rain!), the impressions were limited. With the flat and smooth surface of the track, the ride comfort could not be assessed but the stability of the car at high speeds was good. However, the steering felt a bit on the heavy side at low speeds and either it is because we’re more used to electric power-steering now or it could do with some tuning. As for handling, this too is hard to tell when you are going around an oval with banking on either end and a straight course in between – and you are warned not to do any slaloms on the track. They have handling courses around the facility (which we have used before) but on this occasion, we were restricted to just going round and round.

We were told that the Perdana is a bit quieter inside than the Accord and this is attributed to the tyres. Goodyear must have had one of their specialists from their technical centre in Europe over here to help with this aspect as they did with another company many years ago. Seating comfort was what you’d expect in an Accord and although the rear section slopes back earlier than in the Accord, it does not affect headroom (there is a possibility that the rear seats may have thinner cushions to lower the body position a bit).

Proton’s CEO sees the new Perdana as a ‘turning point’ for the company which has seen declining sales in recent times. He said that the company is working hard to win back its customers (a tacit acknowledgment of having lost customers, which is a refreshing change from what seemed to be a state of denial in the past) and besides this new model, there will be two more coming soon. He said that new models are vital as the current line-up is rather old and dealers want fresh products that will bring people back to the showrooms.

That’s understandable but Proton still needs to address the issue of having a damaged image due to poor quality and reliability. Whether real or perceived, it is the thing that discourages people from putting Proton at the top of their shopping list.

Dato’ Md Radzaif bin Mohamed, Proton’s Deputy CEO, said that the launch of the Perdana had been delayed because they wanted to get the quality right which is commendable considering that the Tiara (remember that?) was rushed into the market before it could be properly built and terrible quality killed the model. But the thing is, can Proton be consistent in quality to the point that there will be no unpleasant experiences being mentioned too often? If the build quality seen on the display units at the Perdana launch today can be maintained and there are no reliability issues with locally-made parts, then Proton can be optimistic about regaining its once-loyal domestic customer base.

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[Chips Yap]

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