Geely’s acquisition of Proton was the biggest automotive news story of 2017. It was the culmination of the national carmaker’s government-mandated year-long search for a foreign strategic partner, and brings to a close a series of short-lived joint ventures with companies like Mitsubishi, Honda and Suzuki.

The move to sell a stake in Proton highlights a key problem that has beleaguered the company for the better part of a decade. The Malaysian market is tiny in the grand scheme of things, and a falling market share means that Proton cannot survive through domestic sales alone.

To its credit, it has been hard at work developing a range of technologies – such as new direct-injected engines and torque converter CVTs – in an attempt to break into export markets, but it just doesn’t have the capital to keep going. Now, Proton has a foreign partner that it hopes will provide it with the funds and the tech it needs to succeed, both locally and abroad.

Now, all hopes rest on the first product to come from the collaboration – Proton’s first SUV model, based on the Geely Boyue and set to arrive in showrooms next year, will enable the company to break into a lucrative market segment. But will it be any good? We took the donor car for a quick spin in China to see what it’s like.

Launched in China in March last year, the Boyue has been a runaway success in its home country, with over 20,000 units sold each month – and that’s with demand still outstripping supply more than a year on, Geely’s spokespeople claim. The car is also on sale in Middle Eastern markets such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where it is badged the Emgrand X7 Sport.

Measuring 4,519 mm long, 1,831 mm wide and 1,694 mm tall, with a 2,670 mm wheelbase, it’s smack in C-segment SUV territory, being slightly smaller than the Mazda CX-5. Against the all-conquering Honda CR-V, the Boyue is 77 mm shorter, 24 mm narrower and 15 mm taller, and has a 10 mm longer wheelbase.

Styled under the direction of design chief Peter Horbury, the Boyue is a well-resolved effort from a company that until quite recently hasn’t been known for world-beating design. The company’s nascent design direction, introduced on the Borui midsize sedan, can also be seen here, with the concentric grille being a key identifier. This is flanked by sharp headlights optionally available with LED technology.

Along the sides, the prominent front haunches flow into the strong shoulder line that leads into the broad LED tail lights, while the beltline features a slight kink aft of the rear doors, creating a little bit of visual drama. Blacked-out pillars give the Boyue a slightly Land Rover-like look.

As is usual for a Chinese car, there’s plenty of brightwork, the most prominent of which frames the front air intake and fog lights, but it doesn’t look overwrought. Front and rear skid plates add a bit of ruggedness to the Boyue’s design, and the 18-inch wheels seen here fill out the arches convincingly.

So, it’s handsome on the outside, but we’ve seen plenty of good-looking cars from Chinese carmakers before. Where they have tended to struggle in the past is making an interior that isn’t poorly designed or hastily constructed using cheap, brittle materials. Thankfully, the Boyue sidesteps most of these errors.

Instead, what you get is something that looks smart and attractive. The dashboard is clean and well laid out, and items like the flat-bottomed steering wheel and the tall centre console with Porsche Cayenne-style grab handles on either side give the Boyue a modern, contemporary look.

Much of it stands up to the touch too. The upper dashboard and door cards are finished in soft-touch plastics that would embarrass many premium cars, and the seats and all the major touch points are wrapped in Nappa leather. The satin aluminium-effect trim, meanwhile, does much to help lift the cabin ambience – the door pulls and handles look especially gorgeous – and are pleasingly metal-like in feel.

It’s not all perfect, however. The silver plastic slathered across the dashboard is reminiscent of a mid-2000s BMW, and it feels cheap. And while the powered front seats are a nice touch and offer plenty of adjustment, the same cannot be said of the steering wheel – even though it’s adjustable for reach as well as rake, it doesn’t come far enough towards you, and it’s set at an angle so you feel a bit like driving a truck.

Still, it’s very spacious, especially – and unsurprisingly for a car targeted at well-heeled Chinese customers – at the rear. There’s lots of head- and legroom to spare even with the panoramic roof, and the flat floor means that three-abreast seating won’t result in a mad squabble for foot space.

One thing of note is that while rear air-con vents are always welcome, there’s only one of them here, so those at the back will have to fight for airflow. The boot is on the shallow side too and has quite a high sill, making it a little difficult to lift heavy items into the cargo area; on the plus side, the load bay is wide, deep and rectangular in shape, so it’s easy to stack suitcases on top of each other.

There’s not much to complain about when it comes to toys. Aside from the aforementioned electric seats, buyers can also get keyless entry, push-button start, a seven-inch digital instrument cluster, dual-zone climate control, all-around one-touch power windows, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, a panoramic sunroof and a 360-degree camera with a three-dimensional view – much like you’d get on the G12 BMW 7 Series.

As befits tech-savvy China, most models get a G-Link infotainment system with an eight-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth connectivity, and navigation is also available, as are up to eight speakers. Range-topping variants receive the fully decked-out G-Netlink unit that throws in 3G conectivity with a dedicated SIM card slot, a WiFi hotspot and Apple CarPlay compatibility.

The system also features voice control, and while it only recognises Mandarin at the moment, it appears to be a very comprehensive Siri-style system – you can name the car and it will respond to you calling it, and it can handle questions about general knowledge and even where the nearest McDonald’s is and how to get there.

Proton officials have said that the full G-Netlink system will be offered on our market, and that the voice recognition will be translated into English for our market. It would be very impressive if all of these functions work as well here as they did in China.

Safety-wise, dual airbags, ABS with EBD and brake assist, stability control and auto brake hold come as standard, and as buyers go up the range they can get hill descent control and up to six airbags.

Those who splurge for the high-end models gain autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control, lane departure warning and auto high beam, which is very impressive indeed – although whether or not the Proton version will get all of these features remains to be seen.

In China, the Boyue is available with a choice of two engines, with the base power plant being a 2.0 litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine making 139 hp at 4,000 rpm and 178 Nm from 4,000 to 4,500 rpm. This engine is only available with a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.

There’s also a 1.8 litre turbocharged, direct-injected mill that puts out 161 hp at 5,500 rpm and 250 Nm between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm. That’s with the manual; opt for the six-speed automatic and outputs are bumped up to 181 hp and 285 Nm, and you’ll also get the option of all-wheel drive.

Other markets receive a 153 hp/225 Nm 2.4 litre naturally-aspirated mill mated to the auto gearbox. As far as we know, there has been no confirmation of which engine and transmission options will be offered on the Proton version, but the turbo 2WD auto variant that we sampled looks to be the most likely candidate.

Initial impressions on the short test drive were mixed. Despite the healthy outputs, the turbo model just didn’t feel all that quick, blunted by the 1,670 kg kerb weight (75 kg more than the heaviest CR-V), a slightly sluggish throttle response and the transmission’s hesitance to kick down under hard acceleration. The Sport mode did little to hasten progress.

But what the powertrain lacked in relative pace, it made up for in other areas. The engine was hushed and remarkably free of vibration even when extended, and when the gearbox did decide to shift, it did so in a deft, almost imperceptible manner.

There was also very little road and wind noise at speed. President of Geely’s new Hangzhou Bay research and development centre Zhengnan Hu said that Chinese customers are very particular about noise levels inside a car, and it certainly showed with the Boyue. Ride quality was also very impressive, with the suspension effortlessly soaking up the undulations and speed bumps that dotted our route.

That level of comfort seemed to have been achieved at the expense of handling, however – although the arrow-straight roads meant we didn’t get to test the Boyue’s roadholding, manoeuvring the car around the course showed that it was softly sprung, so there will likely be plenty of roll in the corners.

The steering, while precise, is also overly light and devoid of feel, and it makes the car feel rather nervy at highway speeds. The good news is that Geely officials have indicated that Proton will be able to make its own changes to suspension tuning (unlike the Perdana and Ertiga before it), so the car that we’ll get should strike a better balance between ride comfort and handling ability, as we’re used to from the company.

So, with our brief seat time over, what were our thoughts on the Geely Boyue? It’s clear that while the car has been designed by an international team of designers and engineers for the global market, the unit that we tested at least was tuned specifically for Chinese buyers, with a powertrain and chassis that prioritises comfort and ease-of-use rather than all-out performance and dynamic capabilities.

Fortunately, most of the Boyue’s flaws can be easily rectified, and we have no doubt that Proton’s chassis expertise will continue to shine through on the local models. More importantly, the rest of the car is thoroughly competent – it’s good-looking, has a premium-feeling interior, is plenty roomy and is packed to the gills with kit and tech. If Proton can price its version competitively, it’ll be an attractive proposition indeed.