Third time's a charm!

EVER since the Iriz and second-generation Persona (and to some degree, the new Perdana) were launched in 2014 and this year, respectively, the market has continued expecting successive Protons to carry on the much-improved quality and value those three models possess. Proton didn’t disappoint, with the introduction of the third-generation Saga last month. Its strong combination of attractive quality, style, practicality, performance and pricing ensures it a strong and wide acceptance by the market, aside from further strengthening Proton’s image. We spent a couple of days with the new Saga early this week to get a good feel of the ‘most affordable and best-value’ saloon aimed at the young ones. By the end of it, we are comfortably convinced that Proton’s perennial best-seller is the compact saloon its target audience should seriously consider. With attractive pricing, features, looks and performance – the third-generation Proton Saga should be a sales success…

BY the heading, I’m not saying the first two generations of Saga were failures; we all can see they are far from that. Proton’s firstborn was beyond successful, forever holding a number of “first” titles – first national car, first Proton, first Southeast Asian car and so on, aside from many other records, achievements and accolades in sales, motorsports and others.

My father bought a Saga 1.5S with an 8-valve “Magma” engine in 1987. After several years, it was replaced with two successive Saga Iswara Aerobacks, which were basically the original Saga with major exterior and interior changes.

In late 2007, when I was already in this business, Proton invited journalists for a preview and drive of the second-generation Saga, dubbed the “Saga BLM”. It was of course not as “special” as the first Saga but after more than 22 years, a new model was a big deal, nonetheless. After its launch in Jan 2008, it sold in large numbers, eventually.

On that day in 2007, I looked at that Saga with mixed feelings, after years of being disappointed by the level of quality in Proton cars. Aside from quality issues many local Proton owners were frustrated with during the 1990s up to the Noughties, the bad experience my parents went through with our second Saga Iswara made me not so enthusiastic about Proton cars then.

Granted, that Saga fortunately doesn’t have any technical or reliability issues I could recall, and Proton kept promising to improve on its quality control. And when the Preve was launched in 2012, Proton seemed to have kept to its promises. You may argue that the models before it had already shown major quality improvements but right up to the Preve, I could see that Proton wasn’t consistent in maintaining the improvements, model after model.

The Preve exhibited significant quality improvements that convinced me to truly believe Proton was really serious, and there’s a strong possibility of a steady and consistent QC in its next models. And we were not disappointed when the Suprima S came about in 2013 – the Iriz (2014) and second-generation Persona (launched this year) with even better levels of quality boosted our confidence further. The Persona got me, for the first time, to highly praise Proton for its stellar effort (Gear Up! Sept 23). With the Iriz, current Perdana and Persona sharing a “family resemblance” too, things looked very promising.

The Saga continues…

When I attended a hush-hush preview and drive of the new Saga at Proton’s headquarters and test track on Sept 22, I had high hopes. But this time, I wasn’t on the lookout for (potential) quality issues, glaring fit-and-finish imperfections or the absence of necessary refinement and practicality for vehicles of its class (no glovebox in the Gen-2, remember?). I was simply eager to see how it looks like in the flesh, as I wasn’t too impressed by the “leaked” internet photos of it. As for quality, I wasn’t too concerned at all. By then, I was quite the believer again in Proton’s continuous commitment to QC.

And yes, the third time’s a charm! Not only is the new Saga very easy on the eyes as well as maintaining the family look, there are a lot of improvements, enhancements and refinements that have gone into it, compared to the Saga BLM. I agree with Proton’s claim that the new Saga will appeal to everyone, especially those looking to buy a car for the first time or as a practical second car. It has a stylish design, practicality, safety, convenience and comfort, all in a best value-for-money package.

Let’s go for a drive!

There are three variants – Standard (MT & CVT), Executive and Premium, with prices starting from RM36,800 to RM45,800 in Peninsular Malaysia. It is fitted with a new 1.3-litre VVT lump in all variants. The VVT technology naturally will significantly improve performance in terms of acceleration and fuel consumption, giving lower fuel consumption by 12% to 14%. The Saga will be able to achieve 5.4 litres/100km compared with 6.0 litres/100km previously on the MT variant and 5.6 litres/100km compared with 6.3 litres/100km previously on the CVT variant (when driven at 90km/h). There’s also an Eco-Drive Assist to guide drivers to maintain an economical driving pattern. In terms of dynamic performance, the new engine achieves better 0-100km/h acceleration too.

During a media drive to Ipoh early this week involving 20 Sagas and nearly 40 journlists, the journey saw us driving on some scenic routes and making a number of detours. The Saga carried itself impressively on various road conditions at all speeds. The cabin is quieter, thanks to three-point engine mounting which greatly reduced noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels. Even without any (official) input from the geniuses at Lotus, we could feel the Saga is the best in its class when it comes to ride and handling.

The car is also longer and wider than its predecessor, albeit by not too much, which provides longer legroom and wider rear seats to provide better cabin comfort. There’s a 420-litre luggage space – 413 litres previously – which can easily fit two medium-sized and two small-sized luggage bags.

More for your money...

Despite being Proton’s entry level car, the new Saga is equipped with two rear USB chargers, radio/CD/MP3, Bluetooth connectivity, 10 compartments, two cup holders, four bottle holders, driver’s seat height adjuster, tilt steering adjuster and foldable rear seat for all variants.

For style, it has a two-piece rear combi lamp and rear fog lamp. The Executive and Premium variants are fitted with more sporty features such as spoilers and alloy wheels.

Consistent with Proton’s drive to provide a safer car to its customers, the new Saga achieved an improved 4-star Asean NCAP safety rating for all its variants compared with a 3-star rating previously. The improved safety features for all variants include two front airbags, Isofix and top tethers as well as front and reverse sensors. Coupled with a stronger body structure, the Saga has also achieved an improved Adult Occupant Protection (AOP) and Child Occupant Protection (COP) ratings.

Additionally, the Premium and Executive variants are equipped with more comprehensive safety features such as Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA). The Premium variant is enhanced with Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Traction Control (TC), Hill-Hold Assist (HHA) and reverse camera.

After the preview last month, I told Proton execs of how impressed and proud I was to see Proton “striking” it again with the Saga. I also mentioned that, like in any new car review, one aspect of a car that journalists can’t put a verdict on is the longevity and durability. Only after a period of usage, “complemented” by Malaysian weather, traffic and roads can we see how the new Saga fares.

But looking at its predecessors’ condition from, say, 2012, it’s quite safe to say the new Saga won’t wilt and melt that easily a couple of years down the road. Those execs pledged that Proton will strive to maintain its QC and even improve upon it.

In the meantime, I highly recommend the new Proton Saga to those in the market for their first saloon, second/third car or company fleet. It has a very appealing and unrivalled combination of quality, style, practicality, performance and price. Go get it.