When it comes to Proton, no car comes close to encapsulating its better days quite like the Saga. The national carmaker’s evergreen first model has remained a significant entry point to its lineup whilst other nameplates have come and gone, and ever since it was relaunched back in 2008, it has consistently been one of the strongest offerings in its lineup.

Despite (or perhaps because of) it being the cheapest Proton, the Saga has always possessed a wonderfully uncomplicated character, paired with a spacious cabin, a pliant ride and well-judged equipment levels. It’s no surprise, then, that sales have remained strong even as the company slipped down the sales charts.

But strong sales are no longer enough. Backed by the might of the Geely empire, Proton has big plans for the future, aspiring to be the number one brand in Malaysia and number three in ASEAN. To do this, it not only has to introduce a slew of new Geely-based models like the X70, but its existing volume sellers will also need to attract more buyers than ever before.

It’s no longer good enough for the Saga to be good, then – it really needs to take the fight to the Perodua Bezza. So this time around, Proton has given the sedan a proper shot in the arm with the latest facelift, giving it a new look, several new features and a new gearbox. Yes, I said gearbox, with proper gears. Are these all enough to see off its sworn enemy? We drive the car to Ipoh and back to see what’s what.

Such is the hype surrounding that new gearbox that it masks just how far-reaching this facelift is. But let’s get the important stuff out of the way first – prices have fallen across the board, now starting some RM800 lower than before at RM32,800. This range-topping Premium model we’re driving here is yours for RM39,800, making this the only car in Malaysia whose entire lineup is priced under the magic RM40,000 mark.

This, combined with the increase in standard equipment, means that the value proposition has gone way up. That’s especially impressive when you look at the RM35,800 Standard AT, which effectively replaces the mid-range Executive variant (minus one or two missing items) at a considerably lower price.

What hasn’t changed are the dimensions. Measuring 4,331 mm long, 1,689 mm wide and 1,491 mm tall, with a 2,465 mm wheelbase, the Saga still offers ample space front and rear. No, you’re not going to enjoy the Bezza’s B-segment levels of legroom here, but trust me, you’re not going to miss it. The boot measures a decent but not outstanding 420 litres, and you still get a folding rear bench instead of split-folding seats.

Now onto what has changed. The reflector halogen headlights remain identical, but between them sits Proton’s now-ubiquitous “Infinite Weave” grille, and they are joined together by a classy chrome strip. The air intake arrangement has also been refined, losing the disjointed “smile” within the lower grille and gaining a gloss black strip that ties it all together. The Premium model even receives LED daytime running light strips.

The wheel designs have been revised across the board, with the Premium being the recipient of handsome twin five-spoke two-tone alloys, still measuring 15 inches in diameter. Moving to the rear of the car, the number plate garnish for the entire range is now body-coloured and sports the “Proton” script instead of the previous shield-shaped badge, tying it in with the rest of the revamped lineup.

The rear bumper is perhaps the most controversial element of the redesign. With the fake corner air vents, diffuser-like lower insert and chrome trim, armchair critics have commented on its likeliness to certain Mercedes-Benz designs, although it’s amazing how many of them looked the other way when BMW did the same thing. Me? I just think it’s a very successful rejuvenation that, dare I say it, adds a premium look.

Inside, the revisions are just as marked as they are on the exterior. Sitting (literally) front and centre is the new floating audio panel, which features touch-sensitive controls no matter which variant you choose. That means that even on the Standard models, you don’t get any physical buttons on the simple radio unit, which could make controlling the system quite, um, interesting when you’re on the move.

The Premium variant adds a proper infotainment system, connected to a seven-inch capacitive touchscreen. Despite also being an Android-based system, it’s not quite the full Geely Key User Interface (GKUI) that you find on the Iriz and Persona Premium models, and it doesn’t come with 4G connectivity or the novel “Hi Proton” voice control. Still, it’s just as smooth, snappy and intuitive as any modern smartphone.

Another big change is the instrument cluster, which gets the far more legible design seen on the new Iriz, Persona and Exora. The indices are clearly marked and the numbers are no longer in large, closely-spaced italic fonts, making it much easier to discern your current speed. There’s also a larger monochrome multi-info display that finally allows you to see your current and average fuel consumption – but more on that later.

Most models also receive new LED map lights (no prizes for guessing where the panel comes from), along with damped grab handles and plusher tricot headlining that lifts the ambience; the Premium’s denim-like fabric upholstery is also a nice touch. Proton says it has also improved the door closing sound thanks to revised sealing, though it’s not particularly obvious unless you put the old and new cars side-by-side.

Safety-wise, Proton has fixed the one glaring shortcoming of the previous Saga – all models now get ABS, an essential safety net that was missing on the previous Standard models. The Premium model still gets stability control and hill start assist, and dual airbags, ISOFIX rear child seat anchors and a four-star ASEAN NCAP safety rating continue to be standard fare.

At this point, you guys are probably fed up with all the formalities, so let’s get to the elephant in the room – the bit you’ve all been waiting for. Yes, as I’m sure you’ve read by now, Proton has replaced the dreaded Punch CVT with – shock, horror! – an old-fashioned four-speed torque converter automatic gearbox. It’s a surprising change, given that the company has spent years cajoling and finessing the stepless transmission into something approaching usable, but there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, Proton is trying to play it smart in the A-segment market – practically every competitor (by which we mean Perodua) uses a four-speed auto, and given that buyers’ preferences are skewed towards that direction anyway, it makes sense to simply homogenise the Saga with the rest of the segment, in line with what the market really wants. It also gives Proton bonus brownie points for listening to customer feedback.

Offering a conventional automatic also gives Proton buyers greater choice, and those who prefer the smooth, easygoing characteristics of a CVT can still opt for the Iriz or Persona, which aren’t worlds apart in terms of pricing. The company says it will continue to offer a CVT on those models – for now, anyway.

The gearbox comes from Hyundai Transys and is likely related to the unit in the Kia Picanto. The Korean supplier was recommended by Geely, which uses the same transmission in its cheaper models, such as the Vision sedan, Vision X1 hatchback and the amusingly-named King Kong sedan. This builds on the synergies that already exists between the two carmakers and should provide cost savings through economies of scale.

I’ve always felt that the pre-facelifted Saga featured the best implementation of Proton’s CVT to date, responding quickly to throttle input and generally going about its business in a smooth and unobtrusive manner. The upshot of all this is that the introduction of a slushbox hasn’t necessarily resulted in an objectively better driving experience.

As four-speeders go, however, this is actually a pretty decent one, dropping down a gear the instant you put your foot down. Yes, the changes themselves are pretty lethargic, so you can’t really rush it; the paucity of ratios also means that the transmission tends to hang onto a gear before shifting up.

But that’s par for the course for a traditional auto ‘box with just four speeds, and these are traits that so many buyers in the segment are used to – so much so that they’re no longer considered faults, just idiosyncrasies. The new gearbox has made the Saga a straightforward car to drive and throws up very few vices, and that’s perhaps the single biggest improvement Proton has made over the 2016 model.

One thing it hasn’t done is make the car feel any faster. The 1.3 litre naturally-aspirated VVT four-cylinder engine carries over practically unchanged, making 95 PS at 5,750 rpm and 120 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm. Those figures aren’t massive by any stretch of the imagination, so don’t expect a great turn of speed.

That said, the Saga is powerful enough for day-to-day driving, and it will happily keep up with traffic, whether you’re fending off other cutthroat drivers in the city or entering a highway. It’s only when you ask for more – say, when you’re overtaking – that the car sometimes struggles to get up to speed. Floor the throttle and all you get is a loud protest from the engine and a fairly gradual increase in pace.

To make the most out of the modest outputs, the transmission gains a new Sport mode. Flicking the lever into the “S” position locks out the overdrive fourth gear and adjusts the shift points, forcing the gearbox to hold onto gears even longer. In practice, Sport mode makes the car marginally more responsive and hunt for gears less often, but such is the gearbox’s inherent readiness to kickdown that it never really feels necessary.

No definitive fuel consumption figures have been released just yet, but preliminary internal testing showed that on a combined cycle, the Saga performs just the same with the automatic gearbox as it did with a CVT, delivering 6.7 litres per 100 km. However, tests at a constant speed of 90 km/h and 120 km/h has seen a reduction of between three to five percent, due to the spec of the torque converter and final drive used.

That figure is certainly achievable. With the route consisting of a mix of highway and winding rural roads, we managed to average 7.0 litres per 100 km on the first day, despite fairly spirited driving. However, prolonged stretches of high-speed highway driving saw the figure rise to 7.7 litres per 100 km by the end of the second day, which is still respectable by any means.

Proton has also worked on the car’s refinement, touting a reduction in noise both at idle and at a constant speed. Against the 2016 Saga, the company claims a reduction of 3.4 decibels at idle (with the air-con off), 2.6 decibels at a constant 60 km/h and 1.9 decibels at 120 km/h.

While the engine is vocal when pushed, it settles down nicely at a cruise, even though it’s never really quiet – not when the rev counter needle still hovers around the 3,000 rpm mark at 110 km/h, only slightly lower than in the previous model with the CVT. And while road and wind noise is still not exactly muted, the Saga is noticeably quieter than the Bezza at speed.

Another area where the Saga has its rival beat is in high-speed stability. Whereas the Perodua is susceptible to crosswinds and would meander around in its own lane, the Proton remains rock solid at the highway speed limit, and even at speeds well beyond that, there’s just a hint of float coming through the steering. This gives the car a reassuring feel, ideal for newer drivers going on long-distance journeys.

In terms of chassis tuning, the Saga has always gone against the grain at Proton. Even during the sporty “Lotus Ride and Handling” days, this was a car that prioritised ride comfort above all else, with little regard for agility, grip and all that other nonsense. That might not sound exciting for all you enthusiasts out there, but it’s vital for a car that is aimed at reaching as wide a market as possible.

To accommodate the heavier automatic gearbox, engineers have retuned the dampers to suit, with an even greater emphasis on ride comfort – both at low and high speeds. Even so, the changes have not made for an overly cushy ride, instead retaining a surprisingly amount of tautness.

That’s not to say that the ride is at all firm – it’s anything but. There’s still more than enough pliancy to absorb the bumps, but they’re handled in a way that does not upset the car’s composure, keeping it poised and stable. Even a particularly rough section of road along our route failed to throw the Saga off its intended path, and that’s a huge compliment for a car on the right side of RM40,000.

This tautness also pays dividends in terms of the handling. Body roll is pronounced but not excessive, and the car stays planted through mid-corner undulations. On the other hand, the Silverstone tyres generate only moderate levels of grip, and the car feels a touch nervy in the wet. The rollers are undoubtedly the weakest part of the chassis, though that’s an easy enough problem to remedy through aftermarket means.

But that’s not the only sore point. Proton has made the steering lighter to make low-speed manoeuvres easier, and there is definitely less effort needed to navigate through tight multi-storey carparks. But in taking away the heft, it has also removed some of the positive feedback coming through the rim and added a little bit of vagueness, particularly on-centre – despite the rack still being hydraulically assisted.

The Saga also gets bigger brakes this time around, the front discs and rear drums having been lifted from the larger Iriz and Persona. While we don’t doubt the stopping power on board, the pedal feel leaves much to be desired – you’ll have to go through quite a bit of dead travel before the stoppers actually bite.

Proton says it has calibrated the pedal to better suit everyday driving situations, but even after two days of driving we were still finding it difficult to modulate the brakes, making for less-than-graceful stops. Again, this is by no means a glaring flaw, and this is still one of the better handling cars in the segment.

Minor niggles aside, the Saga remains just as affable a daily companion as before, and the facelift has blessed the car with far more handsome looks, even better ride and handling and even greater value for money. The addition of an automatic gearbox hasn’t transformed it into a markedly better car so much as it has more closely aligned it to local tastes, which will hopefully result in the sales Proton desperately needs.

But it’s poignant that, just as the Saga was the first Proton to be fitted with a CVT all those years ago, so is it with this car that the transmission has met its demise. The CVT was a stepping stone for the company’s ambitious plan to globalise itself, starting it on a development path that led to turbocharging and would have eventually resulted in completely new direct-injected engines. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

Through its partnership with Geely, however, Proton has stopped following this near-decade-long rabbit hole, which may or may not have produced world-beating cars. Instead, it has returned to its roots with a car that, while still being mechanically simple, is once again solid and dependable, now sporting a transmission that customers can be sure isn’t going to throw up nasty surprises down the line.

And unlike the Bezza, this is a budget sedan that isn’t afraid to go beyond city limits, with a comfortable ride and reassuring handling giving it a real, tangible advantage over its rival. Throw in the lower prices and the extra kit and technology on board, and it’s easy to see why the new Saga is a winner. It really is.

The facelifted 2019 Proton Saga is now on sale, priced at RM32,800 for the 1.3 Standard MT, RM35,800 for the 1.3 Standard AT and RM39,800 for the 1.3 Premium AT. All prices are on-the-road without insurance and include a five-year/150,000 km warranty. You can browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my, and read our Bahasa Malaysia review here.