There’s much ado about the new Proton Saga FLX, and for good reason – the entry-level offering from the company now wears a continuous variable transmission, and the variant also finally brings stuff like ABS and EBD to the playground, so you can expect that there are plenty of questions as to how the just-launched variant shapes up.

Nothing like sampling the car then, and though it was a only a short workout, it did reveal enough about the new prospect and whether things buzz as well as the promise suggests.

Full story after the jump.

Proton arranged a test drive session of the P2-11C, to give the car its internal code, yesterday at its semi-high speed test track in Shah Alam, and also provide more detailed info on the changes and new tech featured on the FLX.

While not radical in number, the revisions are nonetheless substantial, given that the FL Saga was introduced into the market less than eight months ago. Meaningful would best describe it. Leading the way in for the new is of course the CVT unit, which comes from Belgian manufacturer Punch Powertrain. No mention was made of the model being used in the FLX, but given specification requirements, it should be the VT2 that’s on the car.

Plans for the introduction of a new drivetrain began at the end of 2008, and among the options looked at were five- and six-speed autoboxes as well as DCT, with CVT eventually being the pick. While improved driving comfort and fuel economy are the primary draws, the company says going the CVT route offers other positives, among them a lower cost due to its simple structure, the usage of less components as well as easier operation from a smaller, lighter package (it’s 25% lighter than the current four-speed auto).

Other pluses include less engine fatigue and a more reliable transmission on the whole, since the discrete gear changing forces the engine to run at an optimal speed. And, there’s no full service requirement with this one, which should offer a 200,000 km service life and has 25% less moving parts than the 4AT. The wet clutch design features a oil cooler to help combat that CVT bugbear, high operating temperatures.

On the FLX, the CVT features a six-speed artificial Stepped Auto mode called SAT, which is engaged by a push-button switch next to the gear shifter, as well as a L mode.

When engaged, L mode brings the ratio a step lower than the current cruising ratio, allowing for improved response to acceleration for overtaking or climbing a gradient. The mode can also be used to provide engine braking if you’re going downhill. There’s no manual sequential option here, but word is that this will come about in future applications for the transmission.

Oh, and the manual variant of the FLX also sees a change, this being in drivetrain choice, the Aichi Kikai five-speed tranny making way for a Getrag five-speeder. The selection goes the same route as that chose with going with CVT – better efficiency and improved fuel economy.

To wit, the final drive’s ratios reveal much; on the Japanese gearbox it’s 4.7, while the Getrag’s is 3.8. There was no manual FLX during the drive – the word is that it’s coming about soon, and the Getrag stick shifter will make the transition to the FL as standard fitment as things move along.

Elsewere, the 1.3 litre CamPro four-pot mill on the FLX is now of the IAFM+ variety, the plus suffix indicating that some minor revisions to the cam profile have been carried out, addressing some quality-related issues and for better integration with the CVT drivetrain. In terms of output figures, there’s no change – 94 hp and 120 Nm are still it, the same as found on the FL.

There’s also the inclusion of ABS and EBD, which is only available in the 1.3L Executive, essentially the M-Line version of the car. Other additions to the FLX are a new interior finishing called Tempest Grey, an exterior colour called Elegant Brown (as seen in the photos) and new graphics for the instrument cluster meters, the last offering better legibility and visual appeal compared to that on the FL.

New instrument meter graphics (top) compared to the old.

Additionally, the FLX also features changes to the suspension setup, something that wasn’t mentioned in the presentation. The revisions are again subtle rather than radical, but for what’s on, offer a nice jump in handling performance.

The new package features stiffer springs, a thicker front anti-roll bar (21 mm, as opposed to the 19 mm one on the FL) and revised shocks – among other things, the APM-made units feature a reworked rebound rate, offering 20% to 30% more stiffness. Also, the stopper length at the back has also been increased, essentially to stop the rearward sagging look of the car.

The result on the whole is reduced body roll and the promise of more neutral handling into corners. A more aggressive handling package was also delivered during trials, which offered even better performance, but at the expense of ride comfort. This one then strikes the best balance between ride and handling, and these changes are set to make its way on to the standard FL Saga.

On paper performance figures for the CVT show improvements across the board in fuel consumption as well as CO2 figures, as noted in the photo below. We were told that the figures in the chart are for the unit operating in pure CVT mode; while engaging SAT continuously doesn’t change the torque curve, it does affect overall consumption through its modified behaviour.

Across the speed spectrum, the CVT-equipped FLX is also quicker getting to the 0-100 km/h mark than the 4AT Saga – not exactly blazing, but its 13.20 seconds in that particular sprint is 0.9 seconds (or 6.38%, if you’re percentage inclined) faster than the 14.10 seconds managed by the Saga FL 1.3. Of course, the manual still gets to the century faster, taking 13.0 seconds to do so. Top speed for the CVT variant is 155 km/h, and 160 for the manual.

In use, it’s not night and day, that timing difference is, not as far as going round and round a test track would ever show, though the FLX felt a bit sprightlier being pushed. I started out in a FL, which provided handy direct comparison in terms of feel and perception.

Stood on, the FLX felt more willing to go, and felt more composed – and smoother – doing so, from a propulsion point of view. Tonally though, I actually preferred what was coming off the engine/4AT pairing on full-on acceleration; the CVT isn’t louder, the overall scope with throttle wide-open being about the same volumetric-wise, but it certainly is raspier sounding, decidedly sharper in note.

Of course, barrelling along with the right foot stomping on the accelerator pedal isn’t the measure of everything, and settling into cruising at 80-100 km/h changes things in favour of the CVT, the FLX feeling that more poised and quieter.

A lot of it has to do with the marked difference in the FL and FLX’s RPM band at various speeds – the FL’s four-speed AT runs at 2,400-2,500 rpm at 80 km/h, and at 100 km/h the revs sit at 3,000 rpm. The CVT leans this out by being 500 rpm less across the two speed samples – 2,000 rpm at 80 km/h and 2,500 rpm at 100 km/h.

Taking it up to 120 km/h brought another corresponding 500 rpm increase, to 3,000 rpm, showing things to be very uniform for each 20 km/h gain. Hence the perception of the FLX being smoother and quieter – running less revs means less engine drone, and that surely helps.

As for behaviour, the CVT’s characteristics are clean, the Punch box exhibiting good linearity. Its D mode is preferable to that in SAT, at least to me. I didn’t quite like the induced shift-shock feel’s transients, which feels a bit lazy, especially when the car is pushed.

The video shows how the CVT behaves in both modes under full acceleration, as well as normally in SAT mode. Still, I suppose those wanting the behavioral patterns of an automatic will no doubt find the SAT nice to have around.

The suspension revision looks like being a standout, based on what was suggested during the countless go-round runs. Belting around an oval test circuit doesn’t best show the improvements, but even then the FLX showed better turn-in feel and a sharper response in agility. Big pluses here, by the looks of it.

Questions remain, as they inevitably do, coming off such a short sampling in rather determined conditions and terrain. How the CVT shapes up in daily urban use – both consumption and performance-wise – and what gains it offers over the 4AT will only be answered by doing the grind in real-world conditions. Based on first impressions, it all looks quite promising.