Proton's Satria Neo brings a surprising dose of style and sharp driving manners to the budget supermini sector. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
Smartly styled and with driving dynamics courtesy of Lotus, the Proton Satria Neo is a proposition quite unlike any other budget hatch. Of the two engines, the 1.6-litre is worth shooting for and prices are extremely attractive, the Neo weighing in at less than something like a Chevy Aveo. Well worth investigation in other words.
Most of us are comfortable with the idea of Proton building cheap and cheerful cars. We don't mind that they have a few rough edges, given the bargain basement pricing. Those with a little more insight will know that due to Proton owning Lotus, they have received a massive boost when it comes to vehicle dynamics. Get in a modern Proton and I challenge you to find, say, an Audi that steers better. The thing is, Proton has ambition. The company seems fed up with its position at or near the bottom of the vehicular hierarchy. Ambition can be a very dangerous thing, especially for a company that's making decent if unspectacular profits doing what it's been doing for years. With the Satria Neo, Proton aims to take the risk factor out of reaching a little upmarket. The company is basing its belief on no hype - just a very strong basic product. This presupposes that car buyers will recognise the Neo's inherent qualities, something that may not always be the case.
The Lotus involvement is evident the moment you get rolling in a Satria Neo. There's a directness, a lack of flab in the steering system that eludes many sports car manufacturers. Detailed feedback courses through the wheel, thus building confidence in the amount of grip that's available to you. Proton has got it right here. It's far better to have a car with modest power and superb dynamics than the other way round. The suspension of all Satria Neo models offers a very well-judged balance between ride quality and handling, the multi-link rear suspension offering the engineers a number of tuning options. Lateral rigidity has been improved front and rear compared to the GEN-2 family hatch, with revised cross member designs. More aggressive spring and damper rates offer a sportier feel. A single engine is offered, the 1.6-litre CAMPRO unit. Here, you have a 111bhp engine capable of 118mph and producing 148Nm of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is also available.
Design and Build
There's an old adage that says that if something looks right, it is right. Whoever coined it had clearly never driven a Ferrari 348 but there's always an exception. The Satria Neo has what those chin strokers in black polo necks would describe as 'front to rear cohesion'. In other words, it looks the part with nary a line out of place. Those who remember the old Satria GTi - a massively underrated, if slightly underpowered, hatch - will be comforted by the fact that the Satria Neo is much the same size. It's a mere 3,905mm long, although the wheelbase and the track have been extended significantly, freeing up more room inside the car for passengers and luggage. The rear seat is a 60/40 split/fold number and with the bench in place, there's 286 litres of space. With it fully-folded, there's a cavernous 615 litres to play with. Available in a three-door bodystyle only, the Satria Neo features relatively easy entry to the back with a sliding front seat that features a memory function so that it always returns to the desired position. A height-adjustable steering wheel has been positioned at a revised angle to increase driver leg room.
Market and Model
The GSX is well specified with an MP3 compatible Blaupunkt CD stereo with wheel-mounted audio controls, air-conditioning, twin airbags and ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution as well as a fuel computer. There are also 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and body coloured electrically adjustable and heated mirrors. The Sport model is plusher still. Compare the prices of a Satria Neo to something modest like a Chevrolet Aveo and it looks very good value. The better equipped 111bhp 1.6-litre Proton not only drives better and looks better but seems a smarter piece of business to boot.
Cost of Ownership
Although the headline prices of the Satria Neo models do look initially attractive, part of the sheen is taken off when it comes to residual values as a Proton will never fare as well as a name like Ford or Vauxhall. What customers lose in depreciation they can claw back when it comes to driving enjoyment. Economy figures for the Satria Neo aren't helped by its 1.6-litre engine. It'll manage 28mpg around town, 61.4mpg on a longer trip and maintain an average of 42,8mpg, Emissions are pegged at 157g/km.
The Proton Satria Neo does all the fundamentals right. It looks good, drives well and makes sense on the balance sheet, especially if you go for the 1.6-litre version. Proton is hoping that the looks and the driving characteristics will score it sales and although the former may well be the case, perhaps the Malaysians need to be a little more proactive about getting the message across that this car is quite unlike any budget rival to drive. With a sales target of a mere 1,000 cars a year, perhaps Proton are selling the Satria Neo short. If I were in the market for a smart looking but inexpensive hatchback with the peace of mind of a new car, the Satria Neo would certainly make my shortlist. After driving it, you may well make that a shortlist of one.