A Proton Saga

At Driven to Write, we believe all marques have a story to tell and today’s subject, from a half-forgotten outlier is no exception. But before we get to the subject at hand, it’s probably worth a little recap.

Okay, not a Saga, but a Savvy. Image credit: Parkers

The Proton motor company was founded in 1983 and until the advent of rival, Perodua a decade later, was the sole indigenous Malaysian carmaker. Initially partnered with Mitsubishi, who for a time owned a minority stake in the business, Proton cars were mildly reheated Mitsubishi models, like the unfortunately named Saga, which was Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional’s earliest offering in the United Kingdom – first introduced in 1989.

But despite its senior citizen connotations, the Saga proved a successful model line, with over 30,000 sold in the first three years. Indeed, Proton was for a time at least, viewed as a serious entrant to the UK market with healthier sales than Hyundai and an enviable reputation for reliabilty. A matter which perhaps underlines the snakes and ladders vissicitudes of the motor business.

This one definitely is a Saga. Image credit: autobuzz

What we’re looking at today is the Proton Savvy, a five-door B-segment hatchback produced from 2005 to 2012 and sold in the UK pretty much until the Malaysian’s business model for this market collapsed, owing to their failure to meet more stringent EU-wide emissions regulations.

There are several aspects to the Savvy that are themselves interesting before we get to the subject of the car itself. Firstly, it was concieved as a direct replacement for the Proton Tiara. This model came about when Proton’s then CEO signed a technology transfer deal with PSA with a view to basing future models on French platforms and mechanicals. The Tiara launched in Malaysia in 1996 as a mildly restyled Citroen AX, powered by a 1.1 litre TU engine. It wasn’t a sales success and was discontinued in 2000, along it seems with the PSA deal itself.

2012 Proton Savvy. Image credit: autoevolution

Designed in-house and utilising what appears to have been a Proton-developed platform, the Savvy used a Renault-sourced D-series 1.2 litre petrol engine and manual transmission from the Clio. Chassis-wise it was all regular mass-market fare – struts and a twist beam. However, with Proton-parent DRB-Hicom’s ownership of Lotus (they bought a controlling stake in 1996) the Savvy received some attention from the engineers at Hethel.

Another slice of minutae regarding this model lies with the story that in 2004, the MG Rover group was allegedly in discussions with the Malaysians to secure rights to produce both the Savvy and the larger Gen-2 models in the UK under the Rover nameplate, something the collapse of MG Rover in 2005 rendered academic.

Like the re-engineered Tata Indica MG Rover previously adopted for the UK market, the Savvy proved a better proposition than first impressions might have led one to believe. It was certainly a more appealing one from an exterior stylistic perspective. With a distinctive clamshell bonnet and stepped windowline treatment, the Savvy stood out in field largely populated by facsimiles. Its planted foursquare stance and aura of solidity lent it a more athletic appeal, something that was at least partially backed up by its Lotus-honed chassis.

Savvy interior. Image credit: Autocar

The UK motoring press gave the Savvy a grudging thumbs up, but one couldn’t help feeling they were unable to disengage their own latent snobbery from what was after all a cheap and cheerful little car. While clearly a savvier secondhand proposition than one to buy new (depreciation was high) the little Proton might have been rough around the edges but appears to have been a thoroughly decent device.

It also had the added benefit of at least looking a bit different from the sackcloth and ashes norm at this section of the market. I passed one curbside yesterday and its neat looks (and rarity) stopped me in my tracks – a happening that doesn’t happen all that often. I’m probably not going to make a convincing case for the Savvy I know – you’ll already have drawn your own conclusions, but I choose to view it as a refreshingly unusual piece of street furniture, worthy at least of the 800-odd words lavished upon it.

Image credit: RAC

Proton it seems had been working with UK engine specialists, Ricardo on a new generation of engines which were intended to aid the Malaysian car manufacturer return to the European market. However with the Chinese car giant, Geeley taking a controlling stake last year, it remains unclear what future their new masters will decide. It’s possible Geeley could utilise whatever brand equity Proton retains to spearhead its entrance to Europe. They may even decide to use them as a value brand a’ la Dacia. Time will tell.

As for the little Savvy? Well, it may not have been entirely the smart choice but one could definitely do worse.

This article has been amended on 22/02/18 at 13.40PM to amend an error in the original text regarding the end production date for the Proton Tiara. This was published as 1990 but should have read 2000.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “A Proton Saga”

  1. My eye is immediately drawn to the side window profile that’s the opposite of the BMW i3 that came afterwards, was this just a coincidence by two distinctly different manufacturers?
    The i3 also has a clamshell bonnet. hmmm

  2. Hi Eóin, just a tiny typo: the Tiara ceased production in 2000 rather than 1990. When I visited Malaysia in 2002, there were plenty of them about, so I wonder just how unsuccessful they really were; 30,000 mightn’t sound like a big production run over four years but then they were mostly sold on the home market. A casual observation from that visit suggested a more than reasonable share of the B-segment at the time. What killed the PSA deal wasn’t so much the lack of success of the Tiara, but the death of Proton CEO Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad in a plane accident, if I recall correctly. The deal was his baby, and without Ahmad, Proton went back to its old ways, including more retooled Mitsubishis, and, as you noted, vehicles on their own platforms. Ahmad envisaged, as you rightly said, future Protons on PSA platforms, and PSA diesel engines powering the range to get them into Europe.

    1. Many thanks for the clarification Jack. That’s what proof reading at 2 AM will do for you. The text has been amended accordingly. I had considered including Sri Yahaya Ahmad’s tragic death, but as I had not the time to corroborate the facts of the story, I chose to leave it out.

      PSA powered Protons. Hmmm. I can’t help thinking they were probably better off sticking with Mitsubishi powerplants, if not platforms…

  3. This Savvy is in fact a rather nice looking thing. The no-nonsense interior is almost a pleasure among the overwrought dashboards that are the norm today. I guess I’ve never seen one of those before, and I doubt if any of them were ever sold on the Continent. Probably they’re RHD only.
    I remember that some of the rebadged Mitsubishis were available in Germany in the nineties, but Switzerland has never been on Proton’s map as far as I can tell.

  4. The Savvy´s appearance screams UK automotive design. I´d guess an outside contractor was called in to work at Proton for a while. I may be wrong. However, the linear look and the coincidence of the graphics and the curvature indicates someone who has drunk deep from the Land Rover/Rover school of design.
    The rear has some “alien” elements that suggest a mild-tinkering by the in-house design staff.
    If you look at the list of Proton car it shows a very miscellaneous assortment. The Savvy has no relation to the other cars and the same goes for every other car there. Maybe the Savvy is based on a rejected Rover design or a design someone did with Rover in mind (because they had worked there and had been fired and needed a job).

  5. Ooh my god,
    ERA 1,
    The Pre-Proton Years,
    It all began in 1979, when Tun Mahathir Muhammad, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia , mooted the idea of establishing an automotive assembling and manufacturing industry.

    It was his dream to accelerate Malaysia’s industrialisation capabilities to match those of developed nations.

    The dream came one step closer to reality when Cabinet approved the National Car Project in 1982.

    More story telLer: view-source: https://www.proton.com/en/Corporate-Proton/About-Us/Brand-Story

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