Founded in 1983, Proton Holdings Berhad – largely known simply as ‘Proton’ – is a Malaysian manufacturer of budget-priced automobiles that has produced cars for the market here since 1995, starting with the Proton Wira. The brand has proven popular here ever since.
Publically listed on the Bursa Malaysia, the company owns the renowned British sports car manufacturer, Lotus. A controlling 80 per cent stake of Lotus was purchased in 1996 for $74.5 million from A.C.B.N Holdings S.A. of Luxembourg, followed by the remaining 20 per cent in 2003.
This purchase has proven to be a shrewd business decision for Proton, whose pre-Lotus output is of a distinctly lesser quality than its output following the purchase, due to the collaboration between the renowned engineers at Lotus and Proton’s in-house designers.
As previously stated, Proton automobiles were introduced here with the release of the Proton Wira. The Wira was rebadged a year later in 1996 as the ‘Persona’ for marketing purposes, as it was felt that the name ‘Persona’ was less aggressive-sounding and would therefore have wider appeal.
Although the Persona is fundamentally the same car as the Wira, it was given a facelift to coincide with the name change, which included changes to the front grille and rear headlights, together with improvements to the insulation.
The Wira/Persona was based on the 1991 Mitsubishi Lancer and was available as a four-door sedan and later as a five-door hatchback, which incorporated a Proton-designed rear. The Persona was discontinued in 2005 to be replaced by the Gen-2, which benefitted from more modern styling. The name ‘Persona’ was brought back as a sedan variant of the Gen-2 model; although given the same moniker, it should be not be confused with the focus of this article.
The improvements in build quality and engineering that had begun with the purchase of Lotus in 1996 continued with the Proton Satria, released in 1997. Originally available in 3 trim levels in the form of the base GL, mid-range GLi, and top-of-the-range XLi, the car utilised 1.5L and 1.6L engines and included decent standard kit for its price range. Indeed, the GLi model included a radio cassette 6-speaker sound system, central locking, power steering, power windows in the front and back, and air-conditioning.
The GTi model followed in 1999, utilising a 1.8L engine, excellent suspension and precise steering, which made the Satria a much more comfortable ride with great handling. As previously mentioned, many consider this GTi model to be a turning point in Proton’s history as a departure from the antiquated production techniques that had previously been synonymous with the Eastern automotive industry (with the obvious exception of Japan). That said, there were still issues in terms of engine noise, which could be overpowering when pushed.
The Proton Savvy is somewhat lacking in terms of safety features. While front airbags and anti-lock brakes are provided, there is no option for side or curtain airbags or electronic stability control, which really should be considered essential safety items.
Another example of Proton’s continuing improvements is the Proton Savvy, released in 2006. With its attractive styling and great handling, which enables the Savvy to take corners with unprecedented panache and ease, it clearly illustrated the benefits of input from Lotus Engineering. In addition, the Savvy utilised a 1.1L Renault engine that despite its pedigree is still prone to create quite a din at around 5000rpm.
Unfortunately the Savvy is lacking in terms of safety features. Admittedly, the model does include front airbags, but there is no option for curtain airbags, rear-fitted airbags, or EBS. The Savvy was discontinued in 2011.
The Wira/Persona found competition from the likes of the Hyundai Accent and later the Kia Shuma, as well as the Rover 25. The Rover 25 did have arguably superior build quality, and Hyundai provided similar value for money to the Proton. The Satria and Savvy both find stiff competition from the VW Up, which maintains better resale value than its Malaysian counterparts.
However, there are plenty of reasons to recommend Proton to those on a budget, including decent styling that has been accompanied by an increasing level of refinement over time, as well as impressive fuel economy and incredible inverted snob value.