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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.