Latest Saga Takes Affordable Car Ownership to New Levels

By Lee Pang Seng

THE NEW Proton Saga has taken value-for-money car ownership to new heights, especially for an entry level model. In a way, this reflects the very first time that the Saga was introduced here as the national car in 1985.
Back then, Proton gave Malaysians pride and joy to own a locally built car at very attractive prices of below RM20,000. Today, they get to own a mass volume affordable car that boasts refinement and standard features that belie its status at under RM40,000. It’s a new benchmark that rivals would have to aspire to.

The new price structure (on the road without insurance) includes all the three variants that are currently available – the Standard MT (five-speed manual) at RM32,800, Standard AT (four-speed automatic) at RM35,800 and the Premium AT (four-speed automatic top model) at RM39,800.

This is topped further by attractive launch packages such as the free labour for three service appointments up to a year, low loan interest rates from 2.98 per cent per annum and insurance benefits that include an agreed value coverage for up to 12 years, waiver of betterment costs of up to 10 years and flood relief allowance up to RM10,000 (a practical item with flashfloods occurring every now and then).

Though the latest Saga is a facelift model, it comes with more than 200 changes or improvements. Although this number might seem fewer than that for the Iriz and Persona, the changes are more significant.

It includes the CVT (continuously variable transmission) being replaced by a four-speed automatic gearbox, the brakes being upgraded to the ones used on the Iriz and Persona and improving the car’s NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) level as well as the ride and handling performance.

By being part of the Geely group, Proton could draw on the expertise and parts bin from the Chinese carmaker when developing the Saga facelift model. The four-speed automatic transmission that Geely sources from Hyundai for its models was seen as appropriate for a mass market model like the Saga. This also explained why its local content has remained constant at 85 per cent.

It also gained from the Geely technical feedback on how to raise the refinement level of the Saga. If it was to give the rivals a good run for the money, giving car owners a refined entry level car was definitely a great way to go about it.

In body profile, the changes might seem less dramatic compared to the Iriz and Persona but the little details add up to quite a bit. There is the infinite weave pattern for the nose grille that comes across as more subdued and less striking but would do just fine for a family image. The Premium AT gets the new LED (light emitting diode) daytime running light as standard fare.

Of course, there are the new front and rear bumpers. The rear sees a new integrated rear spoiler and the Proton name replacing the Proton badge on the bumper lip. The rear bumper also sees two dummy air vents at the extreme ends to add a sporty touch. What’s more, the Saga has its own silver underlining strip for the rear bumper that sweeps downwards (it flows straight for the Iriz and sweeps upwards for the Persona).

The updated body look is complemented by 15-inch alloy wheels of a fresh design (Premium AT only) that are shod with 185/55 R15 Silverstone Kruizer NS800, the same tyres that are fitted to the Iriz and Persona.

Stepping inside, you couldn’t miss the floating 7-inch touchscreen monitor taking central position on the dashboard. This item is standard across all three models but the reverse camera function is only available on the Saga Premium AT. There is also that familiar automatic gearshift on the centre console.

Depending on models, other newbies include the refreshed combination meter panel with multi information display, restyled centre panel, sun visor with ticket holder and mirror, fresh fabric upholstery, LED map lamps (automatic models only), new smartphone connectivity (Android smartphones and automatic models only). The Premium AT also gets three USB ports.

COE-Ipoh-COE Drive

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and this was where we had a better insight into the latest Saga apart from its refreshed body styling and new fittings. Proton arranged a drive from its Centre of Excellence in Subang Jaya to Ipoh and back over two days involving the Premium AT models, a distance of more than 300km in all.

Proton also took the opportunity to emphasise on the Saga as a national car for the masses by embellishing each of the media cars with state colours, insignia and names. It resulted in quite a colourful impact that drew lots of curious looks, and the occasional thumbs-up, on the highways and b-grade roads that we drove on.

This arrangement had us immediately transported back to 1985 when Proton provided us with a media car that carried our name and the publication we represented on the front doors. That was the only time we had driven a vehicle provided by a car manufacturer or distributor equipped in such a manner.

Fascination aside, we got down to imbibing the new interior ambience before hitting the road. The urethane steering wheel still felt mass market rather than refined and there was only tilt or height adjustment. Nevertheless, the fresh faced instrument panel provided a nice change and the large floating touchscreen monitor was simply imposing.

As we fired up the engine, we were looking forward to gauge the new Saga on its higher level of NVH on the move. The engine remains the same 1.3-litre unit (1332cc) with double overhead camshafts and variable valve timing (VVT). It delivers 70kW ((95PS) at 5750rpm and 120Nm at 4000rpm.

Combined with an automatic gearbox from Hyundai, this mix-and-match arrangement was found to be suitable as the transmission mapping could be tweaked to achieve the best performance. This includes the transmission recognising the hydraulic pressure changes when the car is going uphill and would engage a lower gear for the ascent to be better made.

One thing is for sure, we certainly didn’t miss the drone of the CVT especially during hard acceleration. Yes, the automatic transmission still roared a bit when we did that but the noise generated was more pleasant and easier to live with.

Our highway drives was quite robust, cruising at 140km/h and more where possible. The engine was turning over at between 3500rpm to about 4000rpm. And when we had the open roads, a dab at the full-bore speed saw us achieving the claimed top end of 160km/h, with engine speed at 5000rpm in D (drive) mode.

Engaging S (sport) mode, we managed 170km/h but engine speed was at the 6500rpm red zone. By engaging Sport, the transmission would not go into overdrive and we could drive in that mode if we wished to. The only drawback was a higher fuel consumption as the engine was working in a higher rev band where the power peak is.

Proton says the Saga would achieve 6.7 l/100km (14.9km/l) on highway drives and we managed an average of 6.9 l/100km (almost 14.5km/l) during our stint, despite the fairly robust driving. It certainly appears to be less thirsty than the Iriz during our Kuantan drive not too long ago.

A remarkable impression was the improved NVH, especially for a car of its status. We could easily hold a conversation inside the car without raising our voices as we tore along the highway at fairly high engine revs. Wind noise was considerably lower than expected at those robust road speeds and came mostly around the roof area. It remained low even during those top speed runs.

The quieter interior, however, exposed one area of noise intrusion that was difficult to ignore – the high road roar generated by the tyre going over the respective road surfaces. We hear it too in premium cars but at a much quieter level. There is still some work to be done to achieve a fully appreciable level of refinement. But as it were, the new Saga refinement is still one to be enjoyed.

We also liked the way the suspension absorbed all the road ripples, bumps and rumble strips to iron out the harshness. Proton sure learnt a good lesson from Lotus on suspension tuning and the solid and comfortable ride experience is an area that its main rival has yet to match. The Saga is independently sprung with MacPherson struts in front and a torsion beam axle at the rear.

There is only an anti-roll bar in front. As a result, we noticed the Saga leaning a bit more than expected through fast sweepers (we hardly encounter any sharp bends during the drive to gauge its handling prowess) but it remained stable enough for us to maintain very good speeds. It also remained rooted to road as we tore along the highway at very fast gallop.

The Saga is also well equipped when it comes to active safety systems such as the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and Traction Control System (TCS), which are standard to the Premium AT model, along with the Hill Hold Assist. Proton is quick to point out that this is the only car below RM40,000 to have such safety systems as standard.

The Premium AT also comes with front parking sensors as standard to complement the sensors at the rear. Other conveniences for this model include the switches for the audio and hands-free telephone on the steering wheel, and the boot lamp.

Common to all models are the door bottle holders, foldable bench type rear seatrest to extend boot space for flat and longish items, 12-volt power socket, decent interior space for a small family or four adults, good luggage space, new remote boot release, among others. The best thing is you get to enjoy it all with its attractive price and that’s going to take some beating.