"The most important thing is that the Satria is great fun."
The answer, as tends to be the case in these situations, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Just where, in the substantial gulf that exists between budget South East Asian Hatchbacks and lightweight British trackday specials, the Satria Neo comes to rest will be crucial to its future prospects. After a couple of months and a few thousand miles at the wheel of the Neo, we're well and truly primed with the answers. First you've got to manage your expectations. Lotus is renowned throughout the world for its keenly-focused performance cars but the task of building a £30,000 sportscar that will eat racing circuits and country back roads for breakfast while serving up a hugely visceral and entertaining experience for its driver is very different from the set of finely balanced compromises involved in the creation of a competitive sub £10,000 supermini. The Satria Neo needed to offer interior space but without resorting to frumpy exterior styling. It needed to be well-built and well-equipped while maintaining an affordable price point. It needed to be safe but without piling on the pounds that would blunt economy and performance and, of course, a hugely visceral and entertaining driving experience wouldn't go amiss either. Lotus products must deal in compromises too but they are designed primarily to do one job, the Satria Neo must cater for a spectrum of requirements to sell in the volumes required of a supermini. So you see, Proton were never about to give the Lotus engineers the brief or the budget to knock up a Porsche-beating Proton, no matter how much we wish they would.
In this context, we have a lot of time for the Satria and yes, there's evidence of Lotus involvement beyond the loan of a screwdriver to affix the 'Handling by Lotus' badge to the tailgate. The Satria Neo certainly feels sharper on the road than your average supermini even if it falls short of producing the big car levels of ride comfort that are being engineered into the class leaders these days. The 1.6-litre engine in our car is coarse when pressed and fairly loud regardless of how you deploy the throttle pedal. The ride is firm and the suspension crashes a little unnervingly over larger bumps in the road but the most important thing is that the Satria is great fun. The steering is sharp and accurate, inviting you to carve into corners where you'll find plenty of grip at the front end and an impressive absence of body roll. It's here that the Lotus magic is most in evidence. An element of unwanted flex is detectable in the gearlever but the shifts are punchy and accurate - there's certainly fun to be had at the wheel of this car. If the Satria Neo is a supermini with sportscar pretensions, it's certainly got the styling element taped with a low stance and narrow coupe-like glass house. It represents a pronounced break from the current trend for larger, frumpier designs in this sector. The best view has got to be straight down the nose, the one you get as the Neo crops up in your rear view on a twisty back road. Here, the beady headlamp clusters and letter box grille show real menace, ably assisted by the flared wheelarches and the large central air-intake in the under bumper. This is one of the better-looking superminis, no question, but the clean aggression in the basic shape is let down slightly by some off key detailing. The curvy-spoked alloy wheel design looks fussy and if I wanted one of those fake aluminium racing fuel filler caps on my car, I'd buy one for £10 from Halfords. The modest roof spoiler is just about acceptable, though the other aftermarket-style add-ons could be easily be replaced with smarter items. Our model came bristling with equipment considering its £9,995 asking price. An MP3 compatible Blaupunkt CD stereo with wheel-mounted audio controls featured as did, air-conditioning, twin airbags and ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution as well as a fuel computer. The exterior styling is enhanced with 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and body coloured electrically adjustable and heated mirrors. Is this a Proton badged Lotus? No, it's not. The Satria Neo has, however, got a sprinkling of the Norfolk firm's magic and is competent enough in the more practical areas to produce an appealing all-round package. Proton's supermini will make a great choice for buyers on a tight budget who prioritise a sporty drive with a certain old-school rawness. There are more polished and substantial feeling superminis but few if any give the fun factor of the Satria Neo at an equivalent price.
Facts at a Glance
Facts At A Glance CAR: Proton Satria Neo 1.6 GSX PRICE: £9,995 - on the road INSURANCE GROUP: 7 CO2 EMISSIONS: 168g/km PERFORMANCE: 0-60mph 11.2s / Top Speed 112mph FUEL CONSUMPTION: urban 28mpg / extra urban 61.4mpg / combined 42.8mpg STANDARD SAFETY FEATURES: twin airbags, ABS with EBD WILL IT FIT IN YOUR GARAGE?: length 3905 width 1710 height 1420mm