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We hear it pretty often that Malaysian car buyers don’t give two hoots about segments. You know, the alphabets that separate the Toyota Corolla Altis (C-segment) from the Camry (D), and the Honda HR-V (B-SUV) from the CR-V (C). We’re told that the man on the street creates his own segments based on price – a RM50k car, an RM80k sedan and around RM150k for an executive sedan, for instance.

As cars grow bigger, the size boundaries of the traditional segments are blurring, with the smaller ones catching up quickly. But while size is the easiest method to pigeonhole a car – it doesn’t take an expert to see that a model is big or small – it’s far from the only difference manufacturers add to their range. Features, tech and sophistication count, too.

Proton will be hoping that Malaysians take the latter into account when forming opinions on the new Persona, which will be followed by the debut of the new Saga later this month. Two new sedans in two months is Proton’s riposte to Perodua’s first ever car with a boot, the in-demand Bezza.

Three new local sedans jostling in the same arena? There, that’s what we talked about in the opener, and we have a feeling this will be what some might be asking. The new Persona starts from RM46,350 and tops out at RM59,350, while the Perodua Bezza is priced from RM37,300 to RM50,800. Two of four Persona variants (Standard MT and CVT) are priced below the Bezza 1.3 Advance, so it’s understandable if the average Mat thinks they’re all in the same boat.

Proton would beg to differ, I’m sure. That’s because the national carmaker has a direct A-segment sedan rival to the Bezza, and that’s the upcoming new Saga. The Persona is for the budget car buyer who wants a little more than the basics, something extra to make him feel good. It’s a B-segment offering that Proton hopes to lure people away from the Honda City, Toyota Vios and Nissan Almera. Do you view it that way?

You won’t be the most ignorant of car watchers to say ‘No’, as the Persona’s appearance plays a part. Now, the new Proton measures 4,387 mm long and is 1,722 mm wide. This makes it 53 mm shorter than the longest car in the class, the Honda City, which is not much. The Persona is actually 27 mm wider than the City and the broadest in the segment, too.

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But it doesn’t always appear that big, and this pair of eyes suspect that it’s due to the car’s substantial height. At 1,554 mm, it’s by far the tallest sedan of its kind, as both the Vios and City come duck in below the 1.5m mark. Even the gangly Nissan Almera is 44 mm shorter than Proton’s “Iriz Sedan”.

While a higher roofline allows for more headroom, it’s not good for a proportions, especially on a compact sedan based on a hatchback, where the width and length/wheelbase are not negotiable. We see it on the Ford Fiesta Sedan and Mazda 2 Sedan, and made a same remark on the Bezza, which is of course based on the Axia. These booted hatchbacks tend to appear narrow and tall, and not very pretty.

Of the above-mentioned lot, the Persona is far from the most awkward looking, which is credit to Proton’s design team. But it doesn’t appear as generous in size and as proportionate as the Vios and City. Both the B-segment favourites share their platforms with hatchbacks of course, but have completely unique sedan styling. Both look more “normal”.

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Another car that looks more like a conventional saloon is the Persona that this one replaces. That original Persona, which surfaced in 2007, is 90 mm longer, 3 mm wider and a huge 115 mm lower, with a 45 mm longer wheelbase (2,600 vs 2,555 mm). The figures perfectly explain the more pleasing proportions of the old Persona, which was based on a low-roofed C-segment five-door hatchback. Much less of a challenge for any design studio, we’d think.

The rising window line of the Iriz (which is not too severe, thankfully) looks good on a sporty hatchback, but introduces thick sides and a tall boot deck to this sedan.

The “problem” is masked by a separate line that goes above the rear wheel arches in the style of the W212 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as well as another line in the rear bumper that visually continues the Iriz’s “side blades” between the wheels. The measures are somewhat effective in breaking up the visual mass, but it’s still not a pretty shape to this observer.

Shape and proportions aside, Proton has done plenty to jazz up the Persona. Even the face you see here isn’t identical to the Iriz’s, although it’s still immediately recognisable as a modern Proton. The new headlights are slimmer and sharper, while the “Proton Wings” chrome bar is full length here, cradling the edge of the bonnet. No projector headlamps and LED DRLs here due to cost, but there’s a cool little kink on the bottom edge of the headlamp unit with the Proton script.

The Iriz-style trapezoidal grille that Proton has adopted as a signature element has been modified to incorporate a “moustache” that extends under the sizeable front fog lights. It’s a bold and sporty front, and curiously, more aggressive than the face of its hatchback sister.

There are more sporty cues at the back, and the rear valance is really prominent with bulges at both ends (BMW M Sport-style?) and a central rear fog lamp. There’s also a discreet but effective spoiler from the Executive up. The sides of the rear lamps also sport the Proton script seen on the headlamps. Strange, but the Persona’s tall rear deck and shallow rear windscreen reminds me of “SUV coupes” in the mould of the BMW X4 and X6.

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Overall, it’s a decent styling effort given the restrictions. Hatch-based compact sedans don’t appeal to this writer, but as they say, one man’s meat…

We move on to Persona’s interior, which is familiar from the Iriz. Nothing really wrong about the original dashboard (except for some quirks that we’ll get to later) so it’s a wholesale carryover. But to suit the Persona’s remit as a family sedan, the cabin gets a two-tone treatment – black for the upper and light grey for the lower half of the cabin and door cards. Proton says that it’s for a more spacious and airy impression, and I like it.

Also tasteful is the titanium chrome (dark grey) trim that can be found on the steering wheel, head unit surround and gear lever area; as well as the tiny strips of chrome outlining the air con vents and separating the buttons. Of course, there’s also the stitched effect on the main dashboard panel. The materials aren’t very premium at this price point, but the effect is convincing enough.

One design quirk that we have to mention is the abnormally small twin dials, which are set rather deep in what appears to be a normally-sized binnacle. This is highlighted further by extra large ‘TRIP’ fonts in the multi-info display, which could possibly be larger than the speedo markings. The navigation system’s graphics look like they belong to the Micro Genius era.

The Iriz’s map lights and sun visors did not make it here – the Persona has only one central roof lamp for the whole cabin, and its visors feel cheap to the touch. The latter also doesn’t come with a vanity mirror cover, and the mirror itself is very small.

Nothing major though, certainly not enough to ruin the overall ambience, which if you must ask, feels classier than the basic design of the Bezza. We’re used to getting decent seats from Proton, and the front chairs here (leather all round for the Premium) provide good support. For those who like me, have the habit of emptying all pockets prior to driving, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of cubby holes.

Unusually for a media drive, I managed to spend significant time in the back seat in the journey from KL to Kuantan and back. It’s immediately obvious that the Persona isn’t as generous with rear legroom as the City, Vios and Almera. There’s adequate room for adults though, and the gap between the front seat base and the floor is large enough for feet to comfortably tuck into. The scalloped front seat backs do their tiny bit to free up more knee room.

There’s good headroom in the back. My 173 cm frame fits in with the height of five fingers to spare (hair brushing roof in the Bezza), and the above image shows six-foot tall (183 cm) paultan.org/bm colleague Hazril Hafiz, with the front seat set to this writer’s driving position. I also like the fact that good headroom wasn’t achieved by lowering the seat base (as with the old car), which is of a good height here. The seat back angle is slightly more reclined compared to the Iriz.

It’s not much of an issue for me, but some might lament the lack of proper rear headrests. The two integrated items in the Persona look stunted and aren’t in the position to support adult heads; they touch the back of my neck when I recline my head. Despite this, I found the rear quarters to be comfortable enough. Not too claustrophobic, which can be the case with some hatch-based sedans with small rear windows.

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Unlike the Iriz, which offers a choice of 1.3L and 1.6L engines, the Persona comes only with the larger motor. This is a bid by Proton to differentiate the B-segment Persona with the new Saga, which will be tasked to directly take on the Bezza as an A-segment sedan. That car will not have the once-available 1.6 litre option, giving room for the Persona to thrive as the bigger brother.

The 1.6L VVT engine is familiar, but it now sits on three redesigned mounting points instead of four on the Iriz. The nett result is less engine vibration transmitted towards the cabin. There’s also a new exhaust system (made by the giant French OEM supplier Faurecia) to reduce low rev boom plus a revised ECU for more linear throttle response.

The 107 hp/150 Nm is sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox or a CVT automatic. The stick shift is an option for the Standard trim level, but the Executive and Premium are CVT-only. The stepless ‘box from Punch has been revised for better response and refinement, with Proton putting feedback from the Iriz to good use. The latest item is set to go back into the Iriz to complete the circle.

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The changes are effective and noticeable. Our Premium CVT tester pulled away with less hesitancy compared to the Iriz and the improved refinement is palpable. The sharp whine that dogged early Proton CVTs is also absent. The driving experience is more pleasant as a result, especially in an urban setting.

However, one will not be mistaking this gearbox as anything but a CVT. Unlike the best of its kind from the big Japanese carmakers, Proton’s CVT has yet to add an invisibility cloak to its wardrobe – there are transmissions that are both more responsive and less intrusive in the market. Improved, though.

The continuously variable transmission makes more sense here than in the Iriz. It’s not popular among keen drivers, but the CVT remains the best solution for fuel efficiency and urban drivability – a conventional automatic with more than four speeds in a mass market car will soon be a rarity. The Honda City uses it, and arch-rival Toyota Vios has ditched the trusty four-speed auto for a CVT in the facelift, which will be launching soon in Malaysia. These two segment giants can’t be wrong.

Besides improving the powertrain, Proton has also tweaked the Persona’s suspension to suit its wider brief as a family saloon. Those coming from an Iriz will feel more body movements in the sedan, especially at a highway cruise. The softer primary ride is due to a “relaxation” of the suspension, which has more “give” and travel here than in the hatchback.

While the Iriz is firmer, it has good damping and is far from uncomfortable, but it’s understandable that a mass market sedan needs to be tuned to please its audience, which is accustomed to what I would call a more Asian definition of comfort. That’s the way it should be, really.

Still, don’t mistake the Persona’s handling for a boat’s, because Proton’s accomplished ride and handling engineers will never allow that to happen. It may feel less firm than the Proton’s recent efforts, but the Persona is a good drive in its class, exhibiting decent grip and body control on the Genting to Gombak stretch of the Karak Highway. As with other CVT-equipped cars, losing momentum would mean a noisy build-up, so it’s good to look further ahead when driving fast. High-speed stability is good.

The steering, which could be tighter around the straight ahead for more composed cruising, has good feedback. However, the brake pedal of our tester was way too soggy, with too much empty travel before anything happened.

The drive event incorporated a fuel-efficiency challenge section which threw in some start-stop driving into a mostly touring route, from Jengka 19 to Kuantan city. Two up and with the air con fan on ‘3’, we managed 5.7 litres per 100 km, as shown on the car’s trip computer. This figure should not serve as a guide, but more of what’s ultimately possible with a light foot. We were hovering between 80 to 90 km/h on the highway and accelerated gently from rest.

Last but not least, the Persona is a safe choice, literally. It has been given a five-star rating by ASEAN NCAP, with 14.07 points out of a possible 16 in the Adult Occupant Protection test and 82% compliance in the Child Occupant Protection test, the same score given to the Iriz. All variants come with Electronic Stability Control, ABS/EBD/Brake Assist, Hill-Hold Assist and Isofix child seat anchors with top tether. Six airbags for the Premium and two for the Executive and Standard.

Where should I place the Persona? That was the question I had before driving the car, and it’s one that I still can’t answer convincingly. For Proton, it’s simple. The new Saga takes the fight to the Bezza in the entry-level sedan market, while the Persona is the B-segment alternative to the Japanese favourites. Those with more sophisticated tastes can opt for the Preve, which can be had with a turbo engine.

However, all three of the City, Vios and Almera have a more spacious cabin, and that’s an important yardstick in this bread-and-butter segment, never mind the stronger brand power. Compared to the Bezza, the Persona is more sophisticated – both as a product and dynamically – even if there’s some overlapping in price. That’s the Saga’s job all right.

A bargain alternative to the establishment (no automatic City or Almera can be had for less than RM70k) is the answer I will settle for, but you’ll have to be fine with the Persona’s design and smaller cabin.