Remember the Proton Iriz? I’m sure you do – it was launched three years ago to much hype and fanfare, and was supposed to herald a new beginning for the national carmaker. We certainly tempered our expectations when we drove it (we’ve been down this road many times before), but we emerged with the impression that despite a number of minor niggles, it was still a very impressive effort, with plenty going for it.

I don’t need to bore you with the details of what happened in the ensuing years, but in short, the market pretty much turned away from the handsome little hatchback. The combination of those small flaws (sluggish CVT, refinement issues) coupled with a spate of quality and reliability complaints from customers meant that Malaysians went back to doing what they’ve been doing for the past 12 years – buying Myvis.

Proton has worked hard to fix those errors, first with last year’s Persona sedan, then with the updated 2017 Iriz you see here. And while we can’t tell you what the ownership experience will be like a few years from now, this preview drive has allowed us to experience just how deep these improvements run, and you’ll know what our impressions are later on.

Strangely, however, this also feels like a bit of a swansong. Just hours prior to the media preview, it was confirmed that Geely will swoop in to acquire Proton, with sweeping plans to turn the company around. So in many ways, this will likely be one of Proton’s final products as an independent carmaker – our last truly homegrown car. How does it fare under our judgement? Read on to find out.

You likely won’t be able to tell just from looking at it that this isn’t any other Iriz that’s been driven through a vinyl wrap shop. Proton has spent most of its efforts under the skin – so much so that all the hardware on the outside has been left untouched, with the aesthetic changes literally amounting to different paint finishes.

The only real way to spot a 2017 model is through the gloss black grille garnish, which replaces the previous silver (on 1.3 litre models) or chrome (on the 1.6) trim. The more prominent three-dimensional Proton badging front and rear, introduced on the Perdana, is also new.

Also introduced are two new paint finishes, the more vibrant Ruby Red (from the Perdana) and Carnelian Brown (from the Persona) – as a result, the previous hero colour, Citrus Green, has been dropped from the palette. The two-tone colour scheme you see here is exclusive to the range-topping 1.6 Premium variant, and incorporates a Quartz Black finish on the door caps, roof and rear spoiler.

The tweaks are more noticeable inside, with a number of items having been taken from Persona. These include a new gearlever with a side-mounted unlock button, along with a revised instrument cluster with new graphics, white (instead of red) multi-info display backlighting and an ECO Drive Assist indicator for CVT models. The carpets also get a rougher backing on all models to stop them moving all over the place.

Other changes are more aesthetic in nature, chief among which being the new fabric upholstery with red stitching and blue-and-red stripes. They bear a striking resemblance to iconic Martini Racing liveries, and are proof that even in these austere times, there are still one or two people left within Proton who can have fun. I’d love to know how they snuck that little flourish under the management and bean counters’ noses.

As it turns out, quite a few other things have not – a number of practical “value-added” features have unfortunately been removed from the Premium variant, such as automatic headlight activation, auto-folding door mirrors and the auto-up function on the driver’s side window. These items weren’t strictly necessary, but they did help make the Iriz feel classier than other cars in the price range, and they are sorely missed.

The Premium model also swaps its full-leather upholstery for part-leather, with fabric trim on the inner seat panels and door cards. That might seem like a downgrade, but the cloth feels soft, smooth and grippy, so it really doesn’t feel like you’re losing out on much. You also get red stitching on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, along with red outer trim on the floor mats.

But the biggest change on the Premium model is a new touchscreen infotainment system that ditches the previous Android-based unit. Customers apparently complained about the old system’s unresponsiveness, so the new one is said to be faster in its operation. It’s not a particularly attractive interface, but you can flip through the new unit’s functions with relative speed and ease now, so it is an improvement.

A new feature is Smart E-Link screen mirroring for Android smartphones – essentially, it’s MirrorLink under a different name, and it works well enough as long as the phone you’re using is fast enough, as the whole thing is run by the smartphone. The head unit does have the annoying tendency to kick us out to the main menu, however, at least on the car we were using – we’ll have to wait for further testing.

We’re previously reported on the streamlining of the entire range – before this, the Iriz was offered in 1.3 Standard, 1.3 Executive, 1.6 Executive and 1.6 Premium trims, all of them available with either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT. Now, the 1.6 Executive has been dropped, and the manual gearbox option is only offered on the base 1.3 Standard, cutting down the total number of variants from eight to four.

Equipment count on the 1.3 Standard is the same as before and includes projector headlights, LED tail lights, 14-inch alloy wheels, fabric seats, reverse sensors and a 2-DIN radio/CD head unit with Bluetooth connectivity, USB and auxiliary ports and four speakers.

The 1.3 Executive now receives front fog lights, keyless entry and push-button start on top of a bodykit, rear spoiler, body-coloured door handles, rear wiper, rear seat USB chargers and adjustable rear headrests. As before, the 1.6 Premium throws in LED daytime running lights, a dual-tone bodykit, a larger rear spoiler, 15-inch two-tone alloys and steering wheel audio controls, along with the other bits mentioned earlier.

Safety kit is unchanged, with dual airbags, ABS with EBD and brake assist, stability control, hill-start assist, front seat belt reminders and ISOFIX child seat anchors. The 1.6 Premium also gets side and curtain airbags (making it six airbags in total) and seat belt reminders on all seats. Unfortunately, the Advanced Drive Assistance System (ADAS) that was tested on an Iriz a few years ago hasn’t made it to this car – although given that Proton isn’t in great financial health at the moment, that’s not a surprise.

Further-reaching improvements are to be found mechanically, most of them taken from the Persona. The same two VVT four-cylinder engines soldier on as before, of course – the 1.3 litre mill continues to produce 94 hp at 5,750 rpm and 120 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm, while the more powerful 1.6 litre unit pushes out 107 hp at 5,750 rpm and 150 Nm at 4,000 rpm.

However, the engine control unit (ECU) and the CVT’s transmission control unit (TCU) have been remapped for a quicker, more linear response, improving drivability. Proton claims that with the new updates, the Iriz now takes a shorter time to hit maximum acceleration, which itself is higher than before.

As such, in a head-to-head drag race the 2017 model will accelerate past the old car after one second, the company says – although no specific performance figures have been released as yet. They should compare favourably to the old car, which ran from zero to 100 km/h in 11.1 seconds for the 1.6 litre model and 13.1 seconds for the 1.3, both with the CVT.

Proton has also taken the time to give the Iriz a number of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) refinements. These include a reduction in the number of engine mounts from four to three, a new exhaust system from French supplier Faurecia and higher-quality sound insulation – including the application of filler foam in the pillars. It is said that with all these improvements, the Iriz is now five decibels quieter than before.

Right from the get go, all that effort gone towards addressing the outgoing model’s subpar refinement is keenly felt. Gone is the nigh-unbearable vibration that courses through the steering wheel and the seats under acceleration, so the car feels calmer and much less fatiguing to your senses.

You’ll also find that the car is noticeably quieter, with a less boomy exhaust note and reduced road, wind and engine noise. No, it’s still not quite hushed enough to trouble something like a Honda Jazz, but it’s still a decent improvement from before. All this means that the Iriz will be a much more comfortable car to drive longer distances in – something you wouldn’t have wanted to do much of in the older model.

We’ve often praised the Iriz’s dynamic capabilities, but one bugbear we had was the on-centre vagueness from the electrically-assisted steering, which made the car feel less stable on the highway than it actually is. That seems to have been cured somewhat – there’s a numbness that is still present, but there appears to be a bit more weight in the first few degrees of steering input, which helps lessen the nervousness.

Proton’s engineers said that there were no changes to the steering or chassis, but the tyres on the 1.6 Premium model have been switched from 195/55R15 Silverstone Synergy M3s to narrower 185/55R15 Goodyear Assurances, so that might have played a factor. We’d need to test both the old and new models back-to-back to be sure, however.

Past updates to the TCU have turned the Iriz’s CVT into something that’s just about bearable to use in everyday driving, and the latest round of improvements have provided another step change in the right direction. The car is now much more eager off the line, and less hesitant to respond to sudden throttle inputs, so overtaking should be less heart-stopping this time around.

Both the torquey 1.3 and 1.6 litre engines now feel like they’re up to the task even when paired to the CVT, no longer exhibiting the sluggishness that was evident when we first drove the Iriz all those years ago. At last, the car now has a decent alternative to an old-fashioned torque converter automatic, and all those “you should only buy it with a manual” provisos can finally be wiped clean.

A month ago, I had a go in the outgoing Iriz just to revisit what was good about it and what needed improving. The strengths were plenty – square-jawed good looks, class-leading safety features, compliant ride and sure-footed handling – but I just couldn’t live with the lack of refinement and numerous other tiny flaws.

This much-needed product update has righted many of the reservations we had of the Iriz, bringing it much closer to achieving the latent potential that was so evident when we first drove it. The lack of visual changes mean that most people might just walk past the 2017 model thinking that Proton has just given it a lick of paint, but that would do it a great disservice to the work that has been put into it.

More than that, it’s proof that Proton has listened to criticism, both from the press and from customers – and that’s a great sign as it prepares for its next phase under new ownership. It’s early days and there’s a lot that can happen over the coming years, but if the new Iriz is any indication, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.