BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Proton is a company with one or two tricks up its sleeve. As well as acquiring the Lotus brand, it has started to develop cars that are surprisingly good to drive. The Impian was the first Proton to really raise eyebrows with its crisp road manners but it was always too conservative on the inside and a little dated on the outside to appeal to a wide audience. The Malaysian company fixed that in 2004 when it launched the GEN-2 hatchback. With modern styling and a chassis carried over from the Impian, this is a car that needs no excuses. Inexpensive to begin with, a used GEN-2 nets you a lot of car for your money.
Models Covered: 5 door family hatchback and saloon 1.3, 1.6 petrol [GLS, SX, GSX].
Whereas previous Proton models have bought in design and engineering expertise from other companies, the GEN-2 is a proper in-house project that must rely on domestic success. The chassis is shared with the Impian saloon car and that's a good start. The Impian is one of the better handling compact saloons and the dimensions, when translated to the GEN-2, give it a squatly purposeful, wheel-at-each-corner stance. The exterior detailing shows a number of well-judged contemporary features from the sculpted headlamp units to the bold design of the hatch and the coupe-like window line. First arriving in dealers in May September 2004, the GEN-2 received critical acclaim, many commentators observing that this was the car that would punt Proton onto the shortlists of a new cadre of car buyers. Subsequent take up has been good although there is still some residual badge resistance. That' will soon change if Proton carry on improving at this rate. Proton upgraded the interior trim materials and introduced the option of leather seats in the Spring of 2007. a revised alloy wheel design was also introduced at this time. The GEN-2 Persona saloon version arrived in the spring of 2008.
What You Get
The cabin is a bit of a treat if you're used to acres of dull grey and boring details. It's styled by the Lotus Design Studio and features a set of vertical air-conditioning knobs on the centre console support and a nice metallic finish that together really are a cut above the class standard in terms of aesthetics. If only the quality of the plastics was a little better. The steering wheel is also massively more sporting looking than the apologetic tillers seen in most cars of the Proton's ilk, as is the instrument panel with its twin cowled binnacle and metallic look to the dials themselves. Everywhere you look there are neat design touches, from the unorthodox handbrake grip to the semi-circular door pulls. Equipment levels are competitive across the two trim levels, as is pricing. The 1.3-litre comes only in GLS guise. As for the 1.6-litre models, the GLS opens proceedings, there's a mid range SX variant and a range-topping GSX. Automatic gearboxes tacked another £800 onto new prices but unless you're using your GEN-2 for the dullest of urban commutes, we wouldn't bother. All models get twin airbags while the GSX gets side airbags, a tailgate spoiler and body coloured door mirrors and door handles and (in automatic form) cruise control. All models also get air conditioning, an adjustable steering column, electric front windows, power steering, a CD stereo, reverse parking sensors and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel. One grouse is that anti lock brakes aren't featured across the range, with only the top GSX model getting ABS as standard. Work that one out.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Not a lot goes wrong. The interior fittings are not of the highest quality and the centre console does look a lot better than it feels. Make sure the car you're looking at has been serviced on the nose. Other than that, this is one of the least troublesome budget cars you can buy.
(Based on a 2005 1.6GLS) A new clutch will be in the region of £175 and a full exhaust about £450. Front brake pads will set you back about £45 for the front set and £38 for the rear, while an alternator will be around £185 and a replacement starter motor about £140.
On the Road
Although the GEN-2 will doubtless sell on the basis of its looks and value proposition, a great deal of attention has been paid to how the car drives. Proton now own 100 per cent of Lotus and they want a return on that investment. Quick-witted steering and an alert feel are Lotus trademarks and the GEN-2 isn't found wanting in this department. Factor in a chassis that corners without a great deal of understeer or body roll and you have a setup which will be more than adequate for most of the target market. The more demanding minority may well find themselves wishing for a little more engine, so good is the ride and handling. The ride is firm without lapsing into harshness and float over longer undulations is well suppressed. There are only two petrol engines available - of 1.3 and 1.6-litres in size - and neither are bad units. The 1.6-litre 110bhp CAMPRO unit has been developed in collaboration with Lotus and develops reasonable torque in the mid and upper ranges, but you'll need to resort to the gearbox to make progress in the lower gears. Fortunately this isn't too much of a hardship as the standard manual gearbox is a slick system. The 1.6-litre GEN-2 will cover the sprint to 60mph from rest in 12.6 seconds and run on to a top speed of 118mph. A combined fuel consumption figure of 39.2mpg and CO2 emissions of just 169g/km are both extremely competitive.
Although it's not the most obvious choice, the Proton GEN-2 makes a very sound bet if you're after a modern, nearly new family hatch and funds are tight. Most of the time this would mean downsizing to something like a Nissan Micra but Proton offer a full-sized five door that is very appealing to drive. Cheap and cheerful was never this good.