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Here we are again with the 2016 Proton Saga, a model that Proton’s deputy CEO Datuk Radzaif Mohamed describes as the national carmaker’s “most important model” yet. There’s a lot of history with the nameplate, with “value” being the main unique selling point during its over three decade of existence.

With many new carbuyers entering the market, their first choice should be something that can deliver on multiple fronts, while not having to pay a pretty penny. Proton is hoping the Saga meets all these requirements, and with prices starting at RM36,800 (up to RM45,800), it already hits the “affordable” point.

Our first impressions of the new Saga has been a rather positive one, but a drive around a test track doesn’t tell the whole story. Which is why we’ve been invited to sample the most affordable Proton on a drive up north towards Ipoh, to see what things are like in the real world. Will it continue to impress? Read on to find out.

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As a bit of a recap, the Saga is offered in four variants – Standard (MT), Standard (AT), Executive (AT) and Premium (AT). All of them receive the same 1.3L VVT engine as the Iriz, which replaces the old IAFM+ unit, mated to either a CVT automatic or five-speed manual.

For this trip, we were handed the keys to the 1.3L Premium, which comes with all the bells and whistles, along with the largest price tag. For the money, items like a double-DIN head unit, reverse camera, 15-inch wheels, and most importantly, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) are all here. For a more detailed look at what else is available, check here.

We’ll start with the first thing that gets judged the most when it comes to any car – the looks. Proton says it went with a “modern and dynamic” approach for the new Saga, keeping what’s familiar while injecting several new elements.

Therefore, owners of the outgoing model will immediately identify the front-end, which gets reshaped headlamps, an additional slat for the grille (inspired by the 1985 original), a contoured hood and reworked lower apron (reminiscent of the new Persona).

At the back however, things are significantly different, beginning with the slim, two-piece taillights. They are joined by a central chrome element (black-painted on the Standard) that runs across nearly the entire length of the new bootlid.

Viewed from the side, the car’s profile is less boxy than before, with a restyled C-pillar that slopes more gradually this time round. As a result, the rear doors have been reshaped to match, fitting a wider aperture than before. From this angle, the car certainly has a more proportionate look to it, especially when compared to its competitor – the Perodua Bezza – and its larger sibling – the Persona.

2016 Proton Saga interior (left), 2015 Proton Saga Plus interior (right)

All in all, the Saga is quite pleasant to look at but there’s no doubt the main attraction is that rear-end, which certainly does draw curious eyeballs. Which is why it isn’t surprising that the promotional items (ads, flyers) of the car include generous use of the Saga’s new butt.

The new look also sees changes to vehicle dimensions, including a 74 mm increase in length (4,331 mm), 11 mm decrease in height (1,491 mm), and 9 mm addition to the vehicle’s width (1,689 mm), but there’s no change to the 2,465 mm wheelbase.

The latter is due to the fact that the new Saga retains the second-generation model’s platform, albeit with several improvements. The chassis now gets strengthening in several areas (torsional rigidity is now 12,000 Nm/deg from 10,000 Nm/deg), while the suspension has been touched on to provide better dynamics – new dampers, springs and an engine bay strut bar are just some of the enhancements here.

In other areas, Proton has also revised the car’s hydraulic steering ratio (16:1 vs 20:1), reduced steering effort required (2.75 kgf vs 3.0 kgf), and introduced a steeper steering rack angle, allowing for a tighter turning radius (5.1 m vs of 5.3 m). Meanwhile, the Bezza boasts an electric power steering (EPS), and an even tighter turning radius (4.5 m).

These changes can certainly be felt while on the road, with the new Saga being a giant leap forward for the model in terms of ride and handling. Our drive saw us spend a majority of our time on highways, with short bouts on unpaved roads (leading up to Adeline’s Villa in Gopeng), as well as around Ipoh town (in search of the famous nasi ganja), allowing us to experience the Saga away from Proton’s test track.

At highway speeds and beyond, the Saga remained remarkably stable, without resulting in any feeling of nervousness while behind the wheel. The revised suspension setup plays a big part here, being firmer than on the previous car, so the “bouncy” feel of old is now gone.

In its place is a firmer ride, which can be felt while going over common road deformities encountered for those that frequent the notorious PJ roads. However, it isn’t unforgiving nor back-breaking, with the car doing well to dampen things so it remains civil inside.

The firmer ride also helps in the handling department, with the Saga tracking well through the corners, aided further by the communicative and quicker steering. The car remains well planted at the back, with the front-end being the first to fall out of line as you approach its limits – not something entirely necessary for day-to-day drivers but could be relevant for future participants in the Saga Cup category of the Malaysia Speed Festival (MSF) Racing Series.

Much like other Proton models, the brakes have a fair bit of travel in time before anything happens but it isn’t as severe a case as that on the Persona, according to my co-driver – paultan.org/bm colleague Hazril Hafiz. As for NVH, the Saga is quiet when just coasting along but at higher speeds, it is very susceptible to wind noise from the side mirrors, accompanied by tyre roar.

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Under the hood, the 1.3L VVT outputs 94 hp at 5,750 rpm and 120 Nm at 4,000 rpm – directed to the front wheels via a CVT automatic in this case. The Punch CVT here (dubbed CVT2+) is a big improvement over the one found in the Iriz, and does a good job of laying the power down within reasonable expectations.

A retuned ECU compliments the improved CVT, and it certainly helps when attempting an overtaking manoeuvre. Even so, one shouldn’t stomp on the accelerator pedal and expect instant results, with a progressive right foot being a better alternative instead. If you prefer the former approach, you’ll be met with a build-up of revs and an unnecessarily strained engine.

Proton claims the Saga, at a constant 90 km/h, will do 17.9 km/l (vs 15.9 km/l before) on the CVT, and 18.5 km/l (vs 16.7 km/l before) on the manual, but due to the nature of the media test drive, we couldn’t test it out for real. Still, the 1.3L Dual VVT-i engine powering the EEV-certified Bezza is claimed to provide a fuel consumption (mixed ECE mode) of 21 km/l (auto) and 21.7 km/l (manual), making it more economical by comparison.

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Moving on, life inside the Saga is a pretty pleasant affair with decent interior plastics (keywords here are cost effective) for the new layout. For starters, there’s plenty of nifty equipment that most tech savvy individuals will welcome, like the twin USB charging ports (1.5 A and 2.0 A), and double-DIN head unit, with the latter having not only Bluetooth, AUX, and USB media playback, but also a pretty impressive audio playback quality.

The head unit can be controlled via the steering-mounted controls (Premium only) either willingly or otherwise – the latter due to the positioning of the buttons. Speaking of awkward, finding a comfortable seating position can take a while for some, as my taller co-driver (183 cm-tall) found out. However, it was pretty apt for a person my size (170 cm-tall), with a relatively long seat base and good support.

Even so, the steering wheel at its highest tilt setting (no telescopic) still ended up pointing at my chest, and blocked my view of the digits on the instrument panel. This could be fixed if the seat was able to be lowered further but even at its lowest setting, it didn’t solve the matter. Furthermore, the height adjustment is merely adjusting the angle of the seat base, rather than raising the whole seat. We would like to see more adjustment options for the seat, but that would require redesigning the position of the pedals, so that’s that.

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Rear passengers meanwhile will have slightly more legroom thanks to the scalloped rear section of the front seats, but will have to make do with a shorter seat base, non-adjustable headrests, and a backrest that isn’t the most supportive. By comparison, the Bezza has significantly more legroom, but less headroom than the Saga.

Other complaints include the instrument panel, which may have better readability, but is pretty deprived of information. It doesn’t tell you if you’ve turned any of the fog lamps on, so the only way to tell is to see if the button is lit on the centre stack. Furthermore, there is an ECO Drive Assist indicator but no way of telling what’s your current or average fuel economy.

Improvements to safety can also be found, with a four-star ASEAN NCAP safety rating across the board compared to three before, with highlights being a higher adult occupant protection score of 13.33 points (from 10.23 points) and 71% compliance in child occupant protection (from 48%) thanks to Isofix mounts. Unfortunately, the Saga Standard doesn’t come with ABS, and the Saga Premium does pale in comparison to the Bezza 1.3L Advance’s five-star rating, even with ESC.

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On the practicality front, there’s plenty of stowage space to store all your usual items (wallet, handphone), and the boot can now accommodate 420 litres, which is quite a lot as you can tell from the photo in the gallery, but still shy of the Bezza’s 508 litres. You could get more space by folding the rear bench, but you’ll only have a limited aperture due to the rigidity requirements of the car’s chassis.

In summary, the Saga is a welcome return to form for Proton, and certainly a strong letter of intent in the carmaker’s goal in recapturing the faith of consumers, as well as their position on the sales charts. With all models getting a 1.3L engine and the top-spec Premium coming in below RM46k, the Saga is a tempting alternative to the Bezza, which tops out at RM50,800 for the 1.3L Advance but is better equipped with a touchscreen head unit, keyless entry, and leather seats.

Sure there are a few niggles here and there, but they aren’t detrimental to the entire overall experience of an affordable car that gets you from place to place. With an impressive drive, useful equipment, and good practicality, all priced within reach of the masses, the Saga personifies the much-used term – “value for money,” and yes, the comeback is real.

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