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So here we are again – and this time it has to work. After the opening salvo that was the Proton Perdana, it’s now up to the two upcoming cars, the Persona and Saga, to show what Proton is really capable of.

These are very important products for Proton; they replace its two biggest volume sellers, so any slip-up and the company’s standing in the market place – which is already slipping behind Honda and Toyota – is going to suffer even more.

The Saga will only be launched next month, so all eyes are on the Persona, which has just been launched. While its smaller sibling will be positioned as a budget-friendly first car, the Persona will play to a more aspirational audience – those that will be cross-shopping with higher-end versions of the hot new Perodua Bezza on one end and entry-level foreign B-segment sedan variants on the other.

The question is, does the Persona have what it takes to survive in this cutthroat segment? We take it on a short test drive session around Proton’s oval test track to find out.

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First, the obvious bit – the Persona is very clearly based on the Iriz hatchback, and Proton makes little pretence in hiding it. Apart from the basic structure, the front doors, windscreen, drivetrain and most of the interior are shared between the two cars.

Like a lot of sedans derived from hatchbacks, the Persona’s roots are very clear. The sweeping front end and windscreen – which makes the Iriz look sleek – conspire with the booted rear to make the sedan appear to have a truncated nose. The rear deck has had to be made shorter to balance it out, which does compromise practicality a little bit – we’ll come to that later.

Be that as it may, the Persona definitely isn’t a bad looking car. That’s mainly due to the strength of its details – the slim headlights and grille, linked by a full-width chrome bar, gives the car a very assertive look, reminiscent of cars like the new Honda Civic. Couple that with the large trapezoidal lower grille and “fangs” that encircle the front fog lights and you end up with a pretty menacing face.

At the rear, the one-piece tail lights joined together by another chrome bar, plus a sizeable black rear valence insert complete with reflectors and a centre fog light. Unlike the Iriz, the Persona comes with reflector rather than projector headlights, and bulb instead of LED tail lights; there are no LED daytime running lights, either.

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This was said to be down to cost issues, and given that Proton isn’t exactly swimming in cash at the moment, it’s a compromise we’re happy to live with. At least they’ve embellished the lighting units with neat little touches, such as the Proton script integrated into the head- and tail light graphics.

The biggest problem with the way it looks are the slab-sided panels. Proton has done a lot to try and mask that – there’s a separate line that goes above the rear wheel arches in the style of the facelifted W212 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as well as another line in the rear bumper that visually continues the Iriz-derived “side blades”. Even with all that, the less said about the side surfacing, the better.

Inside, most of the interior panels have been carried over from the Iriz. The “stitched” dashboard, the pod-like centre console and instrument binnacle (now in a gloss grey finish instead of matte on the Iriz), three-spoke steering wheel, the door cards and the transmission tunnel are all identical on both models. Minor detail changes includes a new gearlever for the CVT with a side-mounted release switch.

The main difference is in the colour scheme – while the Iriz had an all-black interior, the Persona’s lower dashboard is in a lighter grey, both to increase the impression of space and to tie in with the design theme of “stylish executive.” Those who drove Personas of yore will also notice that it’s a similar scheme to the outgoing car. It will be a very polarising choice, that’s for sure – especially with the entire transmission tunnel, including the handbrake and the non-slip surfaces for the trays and cupholders are also in that hue.

Despite sharing the same 2,555 mm wheelbase as the Iriz, the Persona feels bigger inside, due to the aforementioned use of lighter colours and a scalloped front seat back; the rear seats are also slightly more reclined. The boot is a massive 510 litres – yes, slightly bigger than the Bezza – and can be expanded via 60:40 split-folding rear seats on all but the base Standard variant. The short rear deck does make for a rather small aperture, however, which will make loading larger objects a little tougher.

There has also been some improvement in perceived quality – there’s a greater consistency in colours between different plastic panels (at least on the cars we tested) and a more positive and solid way in which the doors open and close, addressing issues that we found on the Iriz.

One area where cost is definitely cut is up top. The sun visors are now cheap vinyl-wrapped items, and the vanity mirror is very small. More notable is the lack of any form of front map light – only a centre dome light is available here, even on the top Premium variant – which feels like a bit of an oversight in this writer’s opinion.

Unlike the Iriz, the Persona is available only with the larger 1.6 litre naturally-aspirated VVT engine, which makes 107 hp at 5,750 rpm and 150 Nm at 4,000 rpm. Proton’s decision to drop the 1.3 litre engine was to create a clearer distinction with the Saga, which will only be offered with the smaller engine from here on out.

Drive is sent to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT. The transmission options have been streamlined this time – the Standard variant will be the only one available with a manual option, with the Executive and Premium offered solely with the stepless automatic.

Fuel consumption at a constant 90 km/h is rated at 5.6 litres per 100 km with the manual transmission and 6.1 litres per 100 km with the CVT. There’s also an Eco Drive Assist indicator which lights up when the car senses that you’re driving economically, in the same manner as the Bezza.

Proton claims that there have been several improvements made in terms of refinement, another bugbear on the Iriz. The engine mounting points have been changed from four to three, in order to transmit less vibration towards the cabin, and the mounts themselves have also been redesigned. There’s also a new exhaust system made by Faurecia that is claimed to eradicate the Iriz’s boomy exhaust note at lower revs, while the ECU has been revised for a more linear throttle response.

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Stepping off in the manual car first, the Persona trips up slightly with an odd, slightly sluggish take-up during take-off. Push a bit beyond idle and the engine becomes much stronger, and provides a decent slug of low- and mid-range torque; it revs cleanly towards the redline, too. This positive first impression is matched with that of the gearbox which, while slightly notchy, has a pleasing mechanical feel and a clutch that is light and progressive in action.

Right, the dreaded Punch CVT next. And you know what? In its latest iteration, it’s not that bad at all. While still a little way off some of the best of the business – such as Nissan’s Xtronic CVT – the Persona responds with relative immediacy, feeling nowhere near as sluggish as before.

There’s still that slight “rubber band” feel under harder acceleration, as the revs shoot up but without a correspondingly rapid increase in speed, but all-in-all it’s now at least a fairly decent transmission that shouldn’t be a problem in everyday driving. An added bonus is that the CVT masks the engine’s slight torque dip at very low revs, at it keeps the engine at a slightly higher rpm level.

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Noise, vibration and harshness has been improved significantly, too. There’s little of that aforementioned boomy drone that afflicted the Iriz, and the engine remains civilised as the revs rise. There’s also not a lot of tyre noise to speak off, with only wind noise being particularly noticeable at higher speeds – although the latter could very well be due to the windy conditions of the test track at the time.

The only problem is that at the highway limit, the Persona is pulling nearly 3,000 rpm, so the engine does make itself heard a little bit at that speed. More encouraging is that the the car remains poised and stable at a cruise, with good directional stability – although a lack of steering on-centre response does make it a little difficult to keep it in a straight line. The brake pedal is also fairly soft, needing quite a bit of travel before the stoppers bite – but once they do there’s little doubting their power.

Unfortunately, driving is kept to the oval, so there is no way to judge the Persona’s handling prowess. What we do get to do is sit in the passenger seat while a test driver makes some high-speed slaloms and lane changes to demonstrate the car’s Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system – which comes standard on all Persona variants, just like the Iriz.

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The experience is hairy to say the least – at speeds above 100 km/h, a sudden, violent flick of the steering wheel one way, then the other, is enough to upset the car, causing the Persona to snap into oversteer before the computers very quickly gather it all up. It’s a very stark reminder on why we champion this active safety feature, as it is essential in preventing accidents during emergency manoeuvres such as these. Kudos to Proton for yet another car with stability control as standard across the range.

All things considered, the new Proton Persona is an impressive machine. Despite sharing much with the Iriz, it moves the game on in small, but crucial ways – those that make the car much more pleasurable to drive and liveable day-to-day. It carries many of the things that made the Iriz great, and banishes a few infuriating faults that sully the experience of owning the car.

It’s not perfect – some of the plastics still feel low-rent, and there are still a few quirks like too-small instrument gauges and mismatched switchgear fonts. But it’s inched closer to being a complete, well-rounded car than any other Proton, and while we’ve said that many times before, this time it’s tantalisingly close.

The 2016 Proton Persona has been launched in Malaysia, priced at RM46,800 for the Standard M/T, RM49,800 for the Standard CVT, RM55,800 for the Executive CVT and RM59,800 for the Premium CVT, on-the-road inclusive of insurance and a five-year/150,000 km warranty. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.

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