The Malaysian-built Proton Gen.2 subcompact has arrived in South Africa. The Gen.2 range has stand-out looks and a sporty character, with prices starting at R137 995.

Proton will be a brand new name to most South Africans (at least to those who don't follow MotoGP, where a Proton KR V5 tries its utmost to compete with the Yamahas, Hondas and Ducatis). But when one considers that the Malaysian manufacturer has interests in exotic marques such as Lotus, MV Agusta and Husqvarna, it's clear that Proton isn't a trivial company.

The South African public already has way over a thousand models to choose from, and Pearl Automotive, a subsidiary of Imperial Motor Holdings, this week added another four. The Proton Gen 2 is powered by a 1,6-litre 16-valve engine, manufactured in-house rather than by Mitsubishi, and will be available with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission and in two specification levels - GL and GLS. Starting with the most important aspect for potential customers, price, the range starts with the R137 995 GL manual and goes up to R169 995 for the GLS automatic.

The second most important consideration (for most buyers) is the level of after sales back-up that one can expect from a fresh-on-the-block newcomer. Pearl Automotive says that existing MG-Rover dealerships have been equipped to handle initial operations, while more dealers will be added in phases to meet the demand. Each Proton has a three-year/ 60 000 km warranty, three-year/ 75 000 km service plan with three years roadside assistance.

The first impression of the Gen 2 is that its styling is refreshingly sporty and of a modern design, with handsome headlights and a not too silly-looking grille (much more successful than some competitors). The rear lights too, are multi-lensed in-your-face units. The car's contours are well-proportioned and flowing, with a large hatch that requires a heave to lift. Incidentally, the hatch can only be opened via a lever at the driver's feet. There is no key or remote facility.

The size of the vehicle is similar to that of a Toyota RunX, and interior space is good with decent legroom and headroom, although thigh support in the back is not great. The front seats are both sporty-looking and supportive (leather is fitted to the GLX models). The instrument layout is neatly executed with fuel and temperature gauges incorporated into the larger dials, while audio system controls are spread out in the centre facia section at shoulder height where they are easy to read.

However, the buttons are small and not too positive in use, although everything works fine. Much classier are the air-con/ventilation knobs, placed rather low down and vertically stacked for great visual effect. Plastics are hard, but not too harsh and the steering wheel (no leather here) has satellite audio controls as well. Oddly, there is no glove box, but under-facia shelves can house small items and a large storage bin is fitted between the seats. The rear seat folds 60:40 and a space-saver spare wheel is provided.

The GL specification includes dual airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, on-board consumption indicator, ABS with EBD, discs brakes all round, 15-inch alloy wheels. The GLS adds side air-bags, leather seats, boot luggage net, reverse park distance sensors, sunglasses holder, height adjustable driver's seat, front fog lamps and a tailgate spoiler. The automatic transmission models also offer cruise control.

Power output is 82 kW at 6 000 r/min, with 148 N.m of torque available at 4 000 r/min. Top speed is a claimed 190 km/h for the manual and 185 km/h for the automatic, with zero to 100 km/h sprint times of 10,5 and 13,0 seconds respectively.

Dynamically the cars are somewhat sluggish off the line, requiring a good bagful of revs to get going. The engine has a strained note but isn't too noisy. The manual gearbox, on the other hand, is a delight and makes cog-swapping a pleasure.

The handling, which was engineered by Lotus, is spirited, with little body roll and nicely-weighted steering. The ride is quite acceptable and poor roads don't dramatically reduce the comfort of passengers. Unfortunately for the Proton, it is up against a large number of established competitors in the R120 000 to R160 000 price range. Decisions, decisions! Spoiled for choice, we are!


GL manual: R137 995

GL automatic R146 995

GLX manual: R149 995

GLX automatic R159 995