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Public opinion is an odd thing. Sometimes it’s absolutely spot on, while other times, well, the public is just plain wrong. But once faith has gone, it takes a painfully long time to rebuild. Once scorned, it’ll be a while before many of us go near that guilty party again, if ever. That is, if there’s even a choice.

And so, to Proton. Public confidence in the national carmaker has been tailing off for years, and not without good and/or (most likely and, for most of us) frequent reason. There was the Waja, Gen 2, Persona, Exora, and last year, the much-awaited and hyped Preve. All promised a lot of things, but delivered few.

You hear all the time that the new one is the turnaround car, but it isn’t quite so simple. Even if they’re very good – and the Preve did come very close – it’ll take several years to build up that vital public confidence back again. Strike gold, and the absolute best Proton can hope for is stabilisation.

The real turnaround will come only a few years down the line, when buyers get confident and feel they can put their hard-earned cash behind the vehicles from the first national car company once more. That’s the upside, provided the new Proton Suprima S – now ready to be tested – really is good enough to start the brand back up again. Well now, is it?

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If it isn’t, then Proton really is in trouble. We’ve driven the new model a fair bit to shake out the truth. When the Preve was launched, you may remember, it was pitched, in theory at least, against the Civics and the Fortes of this world. It did well and we rather liked it, even if we did have some reservations.

Now though, the Suprima S has been moved upmarket and is aimed at the mid-sized hatchbacks – the Golf, Focus, 308 and the like. The new Proton hasn’t just changed its gunsights in class and price – it’s also trying to be a bit more sporty.

Out goes the boot, replaced by an intricately designed rump that – take this subjectively, if you will – grows on you the more you see it. I enjoyed a striking moment when it was parked back towards the sun for photography. The light play around the protruding, complex rear panel clearly shows that a lot of work has been put here.

It’s an intricate design that calls upon a fair bit of interplay between seemingly stray lines and surfaces. The Gen 2 had a similarly busy-looking rear end. But they both work, and very well at that. The Suprima S appears taut and low from behind, with no way of telling that it’s ever based on a sedan. It’s just too bad the exhaust pipe is hidden behind the non-functional rear diffuser.

The whole design looks purposeful, like this is exactly the way it was meant to be in the first place. There’s no awkwardness present in the way the rear end dips downwards to create a clean hatchback look, and this is despite the Preve and Suprima S sharing identical rear door panels – check them; they’re the same exact doors.

It has to be said that of the two, it’s the sedan that appears to be less cohesive in terms of proportions. The rising window line fits the hatchback design better, the Suprima S clearly benefitting from not having an awkwardly high bootline. You’d have expected the spin-off to be the one taking compromises, but it ends up looking better than the original. Funny, that.

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The front stays much of the same, with little changed from the Preve. But hey, that has always been a handsome looking car, strutting a defiantly chiselled look. So, a minor product differentiation update was all the Suprima S needed. At least to look good.

Taken from the updated Inspira 2.0P are the new 17-inch wheels, now with titanium-like finish on the inside and matte diamond-cut surface on the outside. They do well to add some visual sophistication to the car, which is good, as Proton isn’t known to necessarily make the best decisions with wheels. Remember the original Satria Neo’s blingtastic turbine alloys, anyone?

It’s not all good news, though. The snazzy new LED strips – now daytime driving lights over the Preve’s dimmer position lights – have a very narrow viewing angle (tighter than most DRLs). It looks almost unlit unless viewed from dead on centre, which is to say that it’s more visible through a car’s rear-view mirror rather than to oncoming traffic.

Also guilty of fashion faux pas are the new lower air intake covers. The simpler horizontal slats design may open up the intake more to increase the radiator’s efficiency by a stonking 14%, but it does make the innards of the car more visible. Too visible, by our view.

Then there’s the rear LED light guides, i.e. rear night light. Proton claims to have achieved the same level of luminance from the Suprima’s two LEDs (per side) compared to the Preve’s 14. It sure looks good, but unless it’s very dark, the light guides appear too thin to be discernible from afar.

Similar to the Preve, the stop/brake lights are still bulb-based, which forgoes the use of LED rear-illumination’s main key advantage over incandescent bulbs – its significantly faster response speed. Used the way it is here, the LEDs are merely an aesthetic feature with no real function, which is a shame.

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Inside, the new trim panels and on-dash multimedia system are the main changes. The Preve CFE’s dark wood trim has been replaced with silver panels with fine cubic print, and the additions of leather upholstery and gloss black trim on the steering wheel, paddle shifters and gear knob complete the visual overhaul. The rest of the dashboard is still grey and hard in most places, as per the Preve’s.

The new Android-based seven-inch touchscreen system is designed by German car audio specialist Blaupunkt, and has a long list of features including GPS satellite navigation (by Lokatoo; identical to the one found in the Perodua Myvi), audio and video playback (USB, SD card or Aux input), plus Wi-Fi (a YES 4G dongle comes with the car) and Bluetooth connectivity.

It uses a resistive touchscreen rather than the newer and more commonly-used capacitive unit – a decision made to aid usability and tactility. It requires you to press on the screen to register an input, compared to a capacitive display’s touch-sensitive screen. Proton claims that it offers better tactile feedback, and it can be used with gloves on too.

But, the screen’s display quality is poor, and even at its maximum brightness, it struggles under bright sunlight. What’s worse, it’s not the most user-friendly system either, requiring quite some learning to master all the available features (of which there are lots).

Also new are the two extra tweeters mounted on the A-pillars, making up a fuller, better sounding audio system with a good level of customisation through the touchscreen display (only on the Premium variant).

Integrated into the display is the rear-view camera, now paired to a visual aid along with the new front parking sensors, which is a nice addition. The front sensors, however, are turned off by default, and require you to operate the dash-mounted button when needed. This is opposed to every other manufacturer’s choice of automatically turning them on below a certain speed.

At least, the Preve’s folding side mirror issue has been addressed. They now unfold as you unlock the car, and not after you drive off – a jarring oversight as evidently Proton forgot that you may need them when manoeuvring the Preve out of a parking spot. Good to know they listen to customer feedback/complaints, though.

Perhaps something that not enough people have complained about is the flawed seating position. You still sit too high in the Suprima S, and the steering rake adjustment (there is still no reach adjustment) doesn’t allow the wheel to be moved high enough to suit the elevated seating position. More often than not, you’re looking down on the steering wheel rather than at it.

On a more positive note, the Suprima S does offer a suite of six airbags as standard, on top of ABS with EBD and BA, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and Traction Control. It’s claimed to qualifiy for a top-notch five-star ANCAP crash safety rating, which surprisingly betters the new Honda Accord, Jaguar XF, MINI Countryman and Range Rover Evoque, among others.

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The rear quarters have been revamped, to match the new car’s hatchback form. The new headrests sit flush to the seat back to improve rear visibility, and practicality is a strong point back here.

There’s just as much passenger space as there is in the Preve, so that’s more than you’d get in a Mazda3, and on par with a Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus. Additonally, ISOFIX mounts are fitted as standard in the back, but unfortunately, there are still no rear air con vents.

Boot space is down from the Preve’s class-leading 508 litre to just 309 by ISO/VDA measurement, but you do gain a much larger/taller cargo area with the seats folded flat. One issue though; there’s no external boot release. You either have to hold down the unlock button on the keyfob (no dedicated boot release button here) or open the driver door and pull the switch hidden in the door pocket. Seriously, Proton?

But that’s enough complaining. Let’s move on to the more significant changes that are apparent on the new model, beginning with the substantially revised drivetrain package. It’s astounding that Proton failed to mention this at the Suprima S’ launch event, because it’s the new car’s most improved feature.

There’s now an enhanced mounting structure for the drivetrain, with the inclusion of a new transmission mounting bracket and rear roll bracket. An additional noise insulation layer has also been added to the enhanced transmission, which is now named the VT3+ as opposed to the VT3 units used in the Preve and Exora.

Improvements applied to the secondary and pinion gears as well as the crown wheel (now made from a stronger material too) bring about significantly reduced transmission noise and vibration. The CVT whine that plagued the Preve has largely been addressed in the Suprima S.

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On the move, the changes translate directly to improved refinement, as the Suprima S is clearly quieter than the Preve. Move slowly from a stop, and there’s less judder from the transmission. Likewise, lift off the pedal to cruise, and voila, there’s no more annoying whine. It’s not quite as good as CVTs from Toyota or Nissan, mind you, but it’s getting there. Slowly but surely, then.

There’s also a new hill-hold assist feature, curiously only on the Premium variant. It holds the car in place on inclines, so it no longer rolls backwards as soon as you come off the brakes. A simple feature, but one that most current Preve owners would kill to have.

The throttle pedal map has been updated too, giving it a more linear but direct feel compared to the Preve. Proton claims that for any given pedal input (other than fully open, at which they’re identical), the Suprima S commands more power from the engine than the Preve does, which links to a more sporty feel.

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Though on paper the Suprima S is slower than the Preve (0-100 km/h in 9.9 seconds versus the sedan’s 9.6 seconds), it feels more immediate on the go, more reflective of the available 138 hp and 205 Nm of torque. It darts forward to the throttle, particularly at medium revs. At highway speeds, it delivers top-gear pull most 2.0 litre C-segment hatches can’t match, though it makes itself heard at anything more than half throttle.

The throttle response through the CVT gearbox still isn’t great, but there’s more than enough poke available when needed. You’ll quickly learn to avoid stamping on the right pedal, as the engine and CVT noise will have you reaching to cover your ears. Feed steady pressure on the pedal, and the impressive mid-range torque will get you where you need to go, quickly.

As for the suspension setup, very little needed improving. The basic MacPerson struts up front and rear multi-links are unchanged, with only detail revisions to the stabiliser bars and minute fine-tuning to suit the larger wheels made. Those detail changes do give it a strikingly perkier character, so there’s nothing wrong with detail, if it’s detail done well.

If it’s sporty you want and hang anything else, the Suprima S is the family hatchback you want. It loves being pushed, prodded, made to spring about the place in whatever direction you can think up. The steering is well weighted, and is quick and full of life as the car zaps into corners.

The Suprima S is easily balanced somewhere between very mild degrees of understeer and oversteer, with the 17-inch Achilles tyres delivering decent grip at all speeds. It responds in an impressively considered way, adding to its dynamic competence. Somehow it manages to feel effortless, yet spirited, on the curvy stuff.

This car changes direction with plenty of communication between it and the driver. It’s very well balanced, even more so than the already excellent Preve. Its superbly sorted handling is made even more impressive by its pliable ride quality, the car striking the right balance between drivability and comfort.

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It rides well, both at urban speeds and on lumpy back roads. For a family hatchback, it feels nicely planted, whereas the Mazda3 and Peugeot 308 would feel small and insubstantial in comparison. There’s a nice weight to all the driving controls, and it soaks up bumps with pleasing aplomb, with a bonus from the silence of its suspension.

Newer contenders in the C-segment family hatchback class like the C346 Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf Mk7 still have much better ride and handling, but it’s a big plus for Proton to even be compared to such segment contenders. Next to cars in the same price range (B-segment cars), the Suprima S is much more spacious, has a lot more usable performance and is far better equipped.

Sure, it has its flaws, as we’ve covered above, but at this price range (RM77k to RM80k), it puts up a valiant fight against its size rivals, let alone similarly priced and smaller alternatives. It’s without a doubt Proton’s best car yet (bar the Mitsubishi-sourced Inspira), substantially improving on last year’s Preve on which it’s based.

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It has a huge amount going for it, the Proton Suprima S, but alas, the company’s image and the national mood are the strongest opposition that it will face. However many corners Proton has turned, no matter how many comeback gigs it has staged, correcting public perception is its biggest hurdle.

The car itself is just fine – ranging from good in most key aspects (performance, interior space), excellent in some (ride and handling, value for money), to poor in others (build quality, top-end refinement). It definitely has the depth of ability as well as character to convert cynical Japanese and Korean car buyers.

It’s simple then. Proton can now compete realistically without leaning too heavily on price advantage alone. It’s just up to you to believe that it can.