"The steering is sharp and accurate, inviting you to carve into corners"
Our long term stint with the Satria started in promising fashion with a glimpse of the car's purposeful frontage as it pulled up in the car park. 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. If anything, there's a hint of Audi A3 in the profile. The best view has got to be straight down the nose, the one you see 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.
Inside is where you'd expect the Satria Neo to stumble a bit. In the past, it often seemed that Proton was single-handily keeping the world's flimsy grey plastic industry afloat but more recent models have shown promise. Effort has obviously been put in with the Neo and there are some very nice touches but too many of the materials look and feel substandard and the old grey colour scheme is very much in evidence. The fascia is neatly sculpted with the rather uninteresting dials housed in a binnacle that bulges upwards not once but twice, coming dangerously close to resembling a pair of those Mickey Mouse ears in the process. The display illuminates blue when the lights are on, making everything far more interesting on the eye. The highlight of the interior has to be the neat centre console with the vertically-stacked ventilation controls and the large square buttons below a tastefully integrated Blaupunkt CD stereo. The small cubby holes on either side are oddly shaped and don't do a great job of hanging on to keys or loose change but a wallet seems to wedge in there quite nicely, provided you're not too flush with cash. The quality of materials here is quite impressive with some nice finishes used but this centre section must have accounted for more than its fair share of the budget. The fake Allen key bolts seen on the fuel filler cap crop up again on the steering wheel, the air vents and the gear lever surround, to questionable effect. The driving position is reasonable with the firm seatbacks and side bolsters giving good support. The roof is low, however, and anyone much over six feet tall or with a voluminous hairdo will wish that the seat dropped a lot more than it does. The rear bench is really only a two person affair and dignified access to it is only really available from the passenger's side. Although the driver's seat tilts forward, it doesn't slide, so you've got to be pretty lithe to squeeze yourself in via this route. Once you're in the back, the floor seems high and the ceiling low so it's not as spacious as most modern superminis but the Satria Neo is smaller and lighter than such cars and this pays dividends on the road. If you get into the Satria's driving seat expecting the big car refinement and composure that's now commonplace amongst the top superminis, you'll come away disappointed. 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 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. The 111bhp powerplant in our model delivers a respectable turn of speed but not the punch you'd expect given its capacity and the Satria's modest weight. It's also quite easy to accidentally flick the wheel-mounted stereo controls while you're driving. This opens up the nightmare scenario of owners barrelling along their favourite back road inadvertently turning off Jeremy Clarkson's latest classic driving rock CD and engaging Radio 4, completely killing the mood. The Satria Neo does have shortcomings in terms of quality and practicality but it has other big benefits. The driving experience is genuinely enjoyable in a raw-edged way that's being lost from today's ever expanding superminis and the styling seems bound to strike a chord with young buyers seeking an affordable and sporty hatch. And let's not forget that the Satria Neo is a Proton, so affordability really is a strength. Our 1.6-litre GSX model retails at only £9,995 and comes with an equipment list to put equivalently-priced rivals firmly in the shade. It's been a while since you could get a car carrying the Lotus badge for this kind of money and in a small way, the simple and engaging Satria Neo is worthy of its association with Norfolk's finest.
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