We were fortunate enough to be invited to a preview of the new Proton P3-90A, which is supposed to be a replacement for the Proton Waja, and positioned above the Proton Persona in the Proton product line-up. It’s no secret by now that this new model is based on the current generation Mitsubishi Lancer.

Look after the jump for our first impressions based on the preview drive.

The car will be ‘soft launched’ tomorrow, which means the name will be unveiled and bookings will be opened. There will be 3 models – a 1.8 litre manual, a 1.8 litre CVT and a 2.0 litre CVT. All three models use Mitsubishi engines from the 4B family, with the 1.8 litre using the 4B10 and the 2.0 litre using the 4B11. Of course, many of you probably know the name of the car already as sales brochures have been scanned and unleashed onto the internet, possibly by sales personnel eager to secure bookings tomorrow.

The case for a new Proton Waja replacement

Proton’s most expensive car right now (other than special editions and the Perdana) is the Proton Exora, which retails at RM76,998 for the Exora MC H-Line. There are various reasons for Proton to introduce a new Waja. Right now, anyone who manages to break beyond the RM60k affordability barrier for a passenger sedan will probably step up to the RM80k to RM100k range, which are currently dominated by the two Japanese brands and complemented by various other makes.

The new P3-90A will allow Proton to offer a model to those wanting to upgrade to something better and bigger than the current Saga, Persona or Waja that they have. It will allow Proton to increase its customer retention as the budget of the customer increases.

And of course, Proton has to serve the Malaysian government, the government’s fleet manager SPANCO, and other fleet buyers such as the police.

Badge engineering a Mitsubishi product – have we gone backwards?

Since news first broke of a new Waja replacement car based on a Mitsubishi Lancer, Proton has undergone much criticism as consumers are perceiving this as the national car company stepping backwards. This is understandable as most laymen who do not track the auto industry as closely as enthusiasts would not know that the modern trend is to badge engineer your non-core models (or even your core models!) to save on development costs so that cash can be focused on core models.

What they know is that Proton started off rebadging Mitsubishis – the Lancer in particular – and now they are back to rebadging a Lancer. In their minds, they’re probably asking what is the point of a national carmaker then, especially one that is perceived to be the reason that the Japanese brands that they want to buy are so expensive?

Datuk Syed Zainal told us at the post-drive media roundtable that it was not an easy decision for Proton to decide to use a reengineered Lancer for the new P3-90A. Not only will the rakyat grill them but there will surely be drama in the Parliament. However, it was a business decision, and a rational one.

Here’s why – at the recent Vios launch, UMW Toyota announced that it was aiming to sell 2,700 units of the Vios a month. The Vios starts at a lower price than the P3-90A – it has a smaller engine and a smaller B-segment body compared to the P3-90A’s C-segment body and 1.8 litre as well as 2.0 litre engines. The amount of consumers who will have accessibility/affordability of car will be lower, and it also has to compete with plenty of competitors such as the Kia Forte along with the B-segment Japanese makes.

Proton aims to sell less than 2,000 units a month of the new Waja replacement. According to DSZ, it would not be wise to invest a big sum of money to develop a new model for the Waja replacement’s segment and price range for a relatively low sales volume. Proton cannot repeat the mistakes of its past, investing a huge amount of money to sell models that ended up not having a very high volume – it would take forever for the entire product to start turning a profit!

According to Datuk Syed Zainal, Proton intends to focus its R&D budget on its core models. Proton is still recovering from its “dark days” and the new management led by Datuk Syed Zainal and Datuk Nadzmi Salleh is still working hard to bring the company to where it once was. It needs to re-invest its precious profits into the high volume products which are cars like the Saga and the Persona replacement, which DSZ referred to as the Persona R. The Persona R is already under development and work on the next generation Saga has to start pretty soon if not already as the Saga will likely get its mid-life facelift end of this year or early next year.

This logic is not uncommon in the industry. Aston Martin is rebadging the Toyota iQ as the kind of car that Cygnet is not a core Aston Martin model. Dodge makes big American type of cars and it is not good with small B-segment cars thus it has rebadged the Hyundai Accent as the Dodge Attitude. Honda wasn’t very good at SUVs in the past so it rebadged a Land Rover Discovery Series I as an early Honda Crossroad before the CR-V ever existed. The modern Ford Ka shares platform with the modern Fiat 500, and Ford and Fiat do not share any stake in each other.

Volkswagen sells a large minivan in the US known as the Volkswagen Routan and it’s based on a Chrysler Town & Country, which is also sold as a Dodge as the Grand Caravan. Chrysler and Dodge are owned by the same company but Volkswagen has no shareholding connection with the American company. Coming back to Mitsubishi – they’ve supplied the i-MiEV electric car as well as the Mitsubishi Outlander to PSA Peugeot Citroen. The Outlander is sold as the Peugeot 4007 and the Citroen C-Crosser.

The Lancer-based Waja replacement is designed to be an interim model to fill in the gap for the need of a product in its segment without having to invest heavily. Proton intends for it to be a “place holder” model to keep Proton in a required market segment until it has the resources to develop a permanent solution to serve the segment. Development of the new P3-90A took 17 months compared to 24 months if developed internally. The local vendor ecosystem is also supported as Proton will start off with 40% local content shortly after launch, with the aims to increase it to about 65% within a year.

Proton shopped around for various cars to be considered as the base for the P3-90A and Mitsubishi was picked because they’ve been traditional partners for the last 25 years thus they already have some form of history together. The Perdana has stopped production in March 2010 BTW!

What are the differences between the P3-90A and the Lancer?

The entire front end has changed, with the Proton version carrying an “inverted” Lancer grille. The Proton version looks more similar to the original Lancer as compared to the Taiwanese market Lancer Fortis, which in my opinion had softened the look of the Lancer too much. Unlike the Taiwanese styling exercise, for the P3-90A the same reflector headlamps of the Lancer remains.

At the rear end, there is a new rear bumper that has an integrated diffuser-like design. Tail lamps are the same as the Lancer. The 2.0 CVT model gets a small bootlid spoiler to differentiate it from the 1.8 litre models. Speaking of models, while the Lancer only comes with a 2.0 litre engine mated to a CVT here in Malaysia with two trim levels – EX and GT, for Proton there are 3 variants, all with different engine and gearbox combinations as well as equipment levels.

The baseline model will be the 1.8L model with 143 PS and 177Nm of torque. This is mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. The mid-range model is also a 1.8L model but with a CVT transmission instead of a manual. The CVT on this model has a manual shift mode but only via the gear lever – there are no column mounted paddle shifts on this model. The top of the line does come with the paddle shifts, and has a 2.0L engine to match the CVT transmission. All of these engines are Mitsubishi GEMA 4B family engines, in which the base block are shared with Chrysler as well as Hyundai-Kia. I wrote quite a detailed article in the past about the 4B engines so you can refer to that story here: The new 4B11 Engine.

Mitsubishi did not allow Proton to touch the engine and the ECU of the Lancer, so everything is exactly the same as per supplied by Mitsubishi. But as Proton has changed the front end look of the car, it is able to do certain things such as install air guides for the transmission cooler, so that the CVT transmission fluid will be less likely to overheat. At the Lancer’s media drive years back, driving at very high speeds for prolonged periods of time (not something we’d do everyday to be honest) resulted in the gearbox heating up over a certain level which then resulted in the car cutting power and displaying an overheat warning on the multi-info display in order to protect the gearbox from being damaged.

Proton’s engineers were very well aware of this during their testing so they thought of a solution to fix it. Proton’s improvement of the airflow into the engine bay has given more air cooling for the transmission cooler, intending to help prevent the transmission from overheating.

Mitsubishi was also quite reluctant to let Proton do anything of the suspension of the car at first, so we almost got a vanilla Lancer without any “Lotus DNA” but later in the development process Proton managed to convince them to let them modify the settings. However it was already quite some time into the development process at that point, but the ride and handling engineers at Proton still managed to work their magic with the P3-90A. The absorber and spring settings are completely different, and there are also some small changes to the suspension bushes. Most of the work was on the roll and vertical rates. Proton matched all of this with 16 inch wheels wrapped with Continental CC5 silica compound tyres to maintain ride comfort. I’m sure everyone will be seriously curious to find out how much different a car can feel just with different suspension settings.

How does the P3-90A drive?

Naturally the 1.8 litre manual felt like the best driver’s car of the lot. The steering somehow felt more precise and had better feedback compared to the other models. According to Proton, the entire setup was designed mainly on the 1.8L manual version so that could be why it felt sharper, and it could also be that the 1.8L manual had a lighter front end compared to the models with the presumably heavier CVT transmission and even the larger engine block for the 2.0L model.

Ride comfort is better than the Lancer GT, because of the different tyres used, and the P3-90A just had a natural stability that’s hard to unsettle even at the extremes, and that helps the driver feel so much more confident in controlling the vehicle. I didn’t feel any issues with the 5 gear ratios of the manual transmission nor the way the gears slotted into position so I suppose if I don’t feel annoyed they should be properly spread. The clutch is also light and easy to control. I think the model I like the most is the manual.

The roads down from Genting and the Karak Highway blurred by as the long sweeping corners were taken at high speeds and I noticed that never once did I feel the car was about to lose control and there was only occasional times where the tyres started to protest. The Lancer GT drives well but a lot agree that its 18 inch Yokohama Advans contributing to a lot of the work while the P3-90A has its good ride and handling built into the chassis settings and once you have a good base from there it’s hard to go wrong! The Lancer GT feels a little stiffer and it has slightly less body roll than the P3-90A but the P3-90A remains very composed.

I didn’t get to drive the 1.8L CVT but we’ll bring you impressions of that after the official media test drive at the end of this month. The 2.0L CVT model didn’t feel very much different from the Lancer that we can already buy now, and you really have to get used to the way the CVT slips up the rev range without any progress before suddenly ‘locking up’ and increasing its forward momentum. CVTs are of course a good thing engineering-wise as it allows the engine to be in its most optimum rev range for the kind of driving you want but no doubt eager drivers are going to be using the paddle shifters a lot. The car’s progress just feels so much better in the virtual 6-speed manual mode although technically it’s less efficient to drive that way.

Other details?

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I can’t comment on the interior quality and texture yet as the cars were pre-production cars and the interior dashboard had all the necessary shapes but were “flat”. Think of it more like a mock up. I guess I’ll find out the actual interior look at the launch. There are four colour options – red, silver, white and black. I think they all look pretty good and I’m torn between the red and black.

In terms of safety features – ALL models have dual airbags and ABS brakes.

Booking opens tomorrow when the name is unveiled and booking fee is RM1,000.

If I missed anything you want to know feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer everything, if it’s something I can answer.