Now that the FIFA World Cup is over and that Spain have been crowned champions everything is almost back to normal. Even that oracle-like octopus is back to entertaining kids instead of correctly predicting the winner of each and every match that it is asked to predict. As for yours truly, I still get mixed up on which Ronaldo actually played for this World Cup. The one from Brazil or the more meterosexual one from Portugal. But that is another matter altogether. Let's talk about a Malaysian made hatchback. The Proton Satria Neo (pic above) is a three door hatchback launched in 2006 as a replacement for the Mitsubishi Colt based Satria made earlier. The Neo shares its basic platforms with the longer wheelbase Proton Waja and Proton Gen2/Persona but has been chopped into a three door hatchback, making it a hatchback that is actually ridiculously tight in the rear even when compared to the earlier model. It was like Proton decided to chop and keep on chopping, forgot about it and then when they realized, stopped a little too late. Or the engineers decided on making it handle superbly at the expense of rear legroom. Go figure, as this chopping of interior space isn't limited to a lack of rear space but a serious lack of headroom. This is one car that if you are taller than 5feet 8inches you would have to drive in a slightly reclined position or your head would hit the roof lining. This is also a car that if you put the sun visor down it would completely obliterate your forward vision in one swoop, unless you're a hobbit. This is also a car that you would bang your head against the door sill if you were not careful whilst entering or exiting the car. This is because the seat is mounted slightly too high and somehow the engineers decided that the total exterior styling was more important than the driver needing his head to be attached to his torso while driving the car. It does look good as a hatchback doesn't it? Anyway, I recently got to have a go in one. When the Neo was launched I remember sitting in the car and complaining about how I hit my head on the door sill whilst trying to get into the car. I remember its awful driving position. I also remember nearly every motoring journalist writing that it does not have any headroom. Then I also saw Top Gear complaining about its crappy plastics and interior as well as that ridiculously unusable sun shade. But the most incredible thing was that Top Gear Australia decided to make this car their car for the “Star in a Bog Standard Car” segment. This was like the original Top Gear's 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' segment of the show. I also remember reading in EVO magazine that it had some handling built into it but it was let down by an overall lack of quality and it was a little down on poke. So somehow, even after all the criticism and a little bit of hoohah a friend bought one and I decided to take it for a longer drive than I did in 2006, regardless of the crappy driving position...all for the sake of science. Right. We now have the 2010 Proton Satria Neo 1.6 M-line, as it's called here in sunny and sometimes very wet, Malaysia. This is the middle of the range version of the Satria sold here and comes with 110bhp and 148Nm of torque from a 1.6liter twin cam, variable induction manifold 4 cylinder engine with either a 5 speed manual or a 4 speed automatic and disc brakes all round. It has no airbags, no ABS or traction control and add all of this to its very peaky power delivery, it now sounds like a car from the early 1990s. But it isn't. It is freshly out of the factory with about 1100km on the clock. But the thing is, this is the most affordable, funky looking hatchback with decent handling and an engine larger than a lawnmover that is sold in Malaysia. The other options are only the 1.3liter Perodua Myvi (nee Toyota Passo/Daihatsu Boon), a Hyundai i10 1.2liter, the Kia Picanto 1.1liter and some Chinese made car which no one wants to buy. So this is why people still buy them over here in Malaysia; a lack of choice at this price range. There is a High-line version with a 125bhp, 150Nm 1.6liter engine with variable valve timing and also airbags and ABS as well as a bodykit. But my friend got his hands on a M-line version with an automatic gearbox, as it's almost a couple of thousand dollars cheaper and it will mostly be used as his better half's runabout instead of an out and out performance/project car. That didn't stop my friend from slapping on 17inch rims and 205/45 series Dunlop tires (up from 16inch and 195/50series tires) on the day he got his hands on the car (pic above) and an R3 (Proton's tuning arm here in Malaysia) body kit a week or so after (pic below). He also added some extra goodies after the 1,000km oil change like some extra grounding cables, a voltage regulator, a K&N type replacement air filter and an aluminium crankshaft pulley to get rid of some rotating mass. Amazing, since the car was only a month old. I open the door whilst making sure that I tilt my head to one side as I enter so that I don't bang against the door sill. I make myself comfortable, which means my hair slightly grazes the roof lining. The seat is way too high for its own good. Somehow the worst thing is that after hearing people as well as journalists complaining about the Satria Neo's compromised driving position, Proton have not done anything about it at all. It's either that or all the people who buy this car like driving in a reclined seating position, like they're on a deck chair on a beach somewhere sipping a drink with an umbrella in it or they are short, really short. Bilbo Baggins short. After looking and feeling the hard, drab grey dashboard and center console I am far from impressed. If it were black the plastics would look better even if it doesn't feel better. Ignoring the el-cheapo interior, I inch out in reverse from the compound of my friend's house and then slot it into first. So far it is easy to drive but the steering seems to be slightly heavy at low speeds. The car seems to have good ride for such a short wheelbase (2,440mm). After taking things easy for a few kilometers I decided that it was time to let it rip. A little. Being an automatic, all I had to do was grip the steering wheel (which is made out of grey plastic and the only reason for me to hold on to it is to steer the car round corners). This car is nippy! It has what I would describe as a grippy front end coupled with a loose rear. This translates to an accurate front end that turns in sharply and a rear that very quickly follows. It isn't as obedient as you may think, as due to the short wheelbase, it is a little twitchy. It may get an unsuspecting driver into trouble with lift-off oversteer of the very serious kind if you do not give it the proper respect it deserves; even if it loves being flung into a corner. The best way to drive this car into a corner is to trail brake into it, keeping the entry speed as high as possible but not letting it go into understeer. As soon as it hits the apex you floor the throttle so that the power pulls the car through past the apex. The more road you have for this, the more interesting it becomes. Slightly brutal, but in a front wheel drive this has to be done. In fact, the only other small hatchback that corners like this is the current Suzuki Swift Sport. But that car has better overall quality (and feel), for a price, of course. Now while this all seems to be pretty fun, the 4 speed autobox is a downer. The ratios do not suit this car well. If you drive it sedately, like if you're 793 years old, which is the average age of people who buy Protons in the UK then this wouldn't be a problem as you would never see the tachometer pass 4,000rpm. But if you are like me, and since this is a mild hatch not a hot hatch, every little ounce of revs are needed to make it boogie. Back to the gearbox, it exacerbates the 1.6liter's highly strung issue. The engine is lethargic below 4,000rpm of which I think it is also compounded by the fact that the engine is only about 1,100km old and barely run in. This is even with the newly (since 2008) introduced IAFM (Integrated Air Flow Module) variable inlet manifold that flattens out the engine's ultra peaky torque curve. The archaic four speeder feels like its too spaced out in its gear ratios (the 5 speed manual is better). On kickdown nothing is felt till 4,000rpm and you will be cursing and swearing as the car does not seem to go anywhere. You could downshift manually, but the gearbox isn't a sporty automatic, so it still takes a while to respond (even with the extra mods in this car). The engine is slightly noisy at high revs too. This could be down to a lack of soundproofing, which is surprising since it weighs over 1150kg, making it pretty heavy for a little hatchback. Add the slightly heavy hydraulically assisted steering which is accurate but slightly anodyne, and only slightly lighter at speed, the lack of ABS (which somehow makes brake pedal feel less spongy than an ABS equipped Proton Persona) and you have a car that is suited for the 1990s instead of 2010. I am amazed that a car like this still exists. In this day and age where a car's power delivery is all linear, steering wheel ultra light (due to it being electrically assisted), ABS, traction control and a usually benign chassis (very safe and understeery) for a budget runabout, Proton comes out with something from the past. In fact, the tail swings round like an old school hot hatch making it somewhat of a riot to drive. Too bad the parts of the car that don't need to feel like they're from 1990 STILL feel like they are from 1990. I do like driving it. But that's about it though. As a basic city runabout it does its job, everything else other than handling needs help in this automatic version. Massive amounts of help. Divine Intervention would be good too.
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