It seems my previous article on whether Proton has a future after three decades in the automotive business, caused quite a stir among the upper management of Proton, but thankfully in a positive way. I lamented on a few failings that our first national carmaker had endured, and by and large had not lived up to expectations, despite the vast amounts of investment of both time and money; things had just not panned out. Proton desperately needed a game-changer, not just in terms of an actual vehicle, but a complete makeover of its way of thinking and how a car business is run.
The introduction of the all-new Proton Iriz was the result of four-years of research and development at a cost of RM500 million, and while spending huge sums of money for a new model may not be anything new, I for one was waiting with bated breath for the time when we’d finally get to review the new Iriz, after its official launch, and that happened very recently. It was finally time to find out what had changed, if anything at all.
The official media drive would see 40 of us head from Proton COE to Penang, in both the 1.3 manual and 1.6 auto CVT. While our first-impression of the Iriz was favourable, it was time to see how it behaved in the ‘real-world’, and I was not about to pull any punches. The event organisers had arranged an ‘eco-run’ to Ipoh, to see who’d get the best mileage, but seriously, I could not have cared less about the rather attractive prizes that awaited those who achieved the best mileage. I’d waited too long to test this car and wasn’t going to review it at 60-80kmh, the hell with that. For the record, the winners achieved an average of 6-7L/100km, whereas the car I drove averaged about 9.7-10L/100km, which was still a decent figure considering how hard I trash…drove this car.
So where should I really begin? How about I cut to the chase and give you my verdict now, instead of at the end as how it’s usually done, and then tell you why along the way? Ok then, here goes: Apart from the Satria GTI which remains in my book as the best Proton ever, the new Iriz is without a doubt the best car Proton has ever produced. How’s that for a bold statement?
In my previous Proton article, I mentioned that one of Proton’s biggest achievements and also greatest failings was making their cars cheap. Yes, they’re affordable but there’s a huge difference between ‘cheap & cheerful’ and ‘cheap & utter crap’. Protons were nose-diving at a rapid pace into the latter category, but not so with the Iriz. It’s the first Proton in a long time that oozes something unheard of in Protons; tactile-feel.
Yes, where in the past Protons looked and felt cheap, especially on the inside, the Iriz has taken things to a different level. I was not the only one who mentioned that the centre console looks very VW-ish, but unlike the Satria Neo which looked good in sketches but had interior components supplied by Tupperware, the Iriz uses materials that look and feel up-market. The buttons and switchgear feel good to the touch, they ‘click’ (for want of a better expression) nicely and are delightful to use.
The climate control knobs look up-market and feel nowhere near as flimsy as the ones used in previous models. Fit and finish is also excellent, and while we thought these were all special-prepared cars, they weren’t. The cars we drove were all production cars. In terms of driver ergonomics, the seats felt comfortable and very supportive, and getting the perfect driving position was a breeze. Special mention has to be given to the headrests. They actually look and feel like the ones found in a Volvo, and not only do they provide whiplash protection, they actually feel really good to rest ones head on, which I did frequently thanks to the long drive.
While the rest were trying to win prizes by driving at a pace my grandmother could outrun (and she’s dead by the way), I decided to let fly on the highway, reaching speeds in access of 160kmh in some clear stretches, and even 180kmh for a brief spell, and I have to say, Proton has done a remarkable job with the NVH of the Iriz. There are no rattles or squeaks, seeing as how the fit and finish is easily the best I’ve ever come across in a Proton, but what’s most remarkable is how the car feels being driven in anger on less than perfect roads and around twists and turns.
In the subsequent Q&A, I did ask if Lotus played a part in the development of the Iriz’ ride and handling (they played a very small part, the rest was done by Proton R&D) because it is uncanny just how well this car handles. As everyone knows, there always has to be a trade-off; if you want comfort, performance-handling will suffer, and vice-versa. Not so with the Iriz. As unbelievable as it may sound, the way this car can be chucked around fast sweeping corners as well as tight and twisty turns is nothing short of amazing. But not only that, over bumps, potholes, undulations and other road irregularities that we’re so accustomed to, the Iriz is able to soak those up like they’re not even there. How Proton has managed this I’m not too sure, but whether you feel like puttering or pounding, the car simply copes.
As we’d mentioned before, the Iriz is the first Proton car to use electric-power steering (it’s also the first Proton to have door-mounted wing-mirrors) and that usually means the death of any sort of ‘feedback’ from the front tyres, but again, it was a surprise. Being speed-sensitive, the Iriz’ steering tightens up when belting along, assistance is minimized and the driver can actually gauge and feel what the front tyres are doing. It feels nicely ‘weighted’ and inspires confidence.
The offset front and rear tracks (the rear tracks are actually wider than the front) may have something to do with the way the Iriz tackles corners, because on most occasions, it wasn’t even necessary to lift-off, just power through. And speaking of power, there’s a very decent 80kW (109bhp) and 150Nm to play with in the 1.6 CVT and 70kW (95bhp) and 120Nm in the 1.3 manual – the two cars available for us to review on this drive.
I have to say though the CVT is a big disappointment. It’s a clutch-type without a torque converter, and makes a bit of a racket at higher revs. It’s also a lazy gearbox, which requires quite a shove of the right foot to get it going. There’s a distinct ‘lag’ upon initial take-off, unless you kick it hard enough to dent the floorboard. I’ve already put in my test-request for the 1.6 manual, which I reckon mated to that very sweet-revving 1.6 VVT engine, is going to be a hoot to drive.
The 1.3 VVT 5-speed manual on the other hand, despite decent grunt, is more a 4-speeder, seeing as how fifth is definitely just a fuel-efficient ‘cruising’ gear, which drops the revs by more than 2,000 rpm. With fourth gear too high and fifth gear too low, constant shifts were required especially at the curvy hilly area around Jelapang. The good thing though is that the 1.3 shares the same loony handling characteristics of the 1.6, which means it’s a real joy pounding the pavement in this thing when the roads get twisy.
Settling back to a more sedate cruising pace, again, the Iriz becomes just a quiet and comfortable car to drive in. I kept looking for faults in the components as well as fit and finish, and apart from slightly sharp edges on the inside of the glove box, I could find none. In the first-generation Proton Waja, I found about ten in the dashboard alone.
During the drive, the Iriz received quite a lot of attention and even a few ‘thumbs-up’ from fellow motorists, and why not? In terms of design, I’m not the only one who thinks its styling is very appealing, coming-off very European ‘super-mini’ like. I especially like the three-quarter rear angle, which makes the Iriz look hunkered-down and squat. It looks lowered and practically hugging the tarmac, which it does, so it’s not just all-show either.
So is the Iriz perfect? No, of course not. The gearing in the manual 1.3 gearbox needs a quick revision, and the CVT needs to be tweaked for sure, especially for lower revs, but apart from that, I’m not kidding when I say that this is the first Proton in a long time that has really impressed me. Proton has been in the car business for more than three decades, and it hasn’t been smooth sailing, but it has weathered the storm and risen to the challenge of its uncertain future. With new ‘blood’ in the management team and none other than Tun Dr.Mahathir as its Chairman, there’s a very visible renewed enthusiasm and extremely positive vibe echoing along the corridors of PHB. Are the tides finally turning for our first national carmaker?
Well, if the Iriz is any sort of indication, then it has to be a ‘yes’. Whispers of a future 1.6 Turbo with ‘cognitive’ safety systems simply fuelled the enthusiasm and passion that seemed to radiate from the Proton people I spoke to. This is a new Proton I’m seeing, and I gotta say, I like it…a lot.
At the end of the day though, it’s about the new Iriz, and I can imagine what you’re thinking now, “sure it’s a brand new car, cars are always good when they new” and many have also mentioned to me “tell me what it’s like after six months” and that’s a valid point. Well, AF is going to do something about that, we’ve already made the first-step, so stay tuned for more coming soon!