The Proton Preve is tagged by the Malaysian manufacturer as an example of its ability to compete on the world stage.
The name Preve (pronounced Pree-vey) means ‘proof’ or ‘to prove’, and 30 years after Proton was established – although it’s barely made a dent in Australia since arriving in 1995 – this small sedan is its first entirely home-grown effort. It has plenty of weight on its Toyota Corolla-sized shoulders, then, but the Preve has at least already proven tangibly strong having been awarded a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
A single 1.6-litre four-cylinder model is available for the Proton Preve, with a five-speed manual for $18,990 driveaway, or the automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) tested here priced at $20,990 driveaway. Both get a five-year/150,000km warranty, and over that period both roadside assistance and scheduled servicing every 12 months or 15,000km is entirely free.
On the features side of the specifications list the Proton Preve appears competitive. Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, reversing sensors, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, keyless entry with alarm, power windows, and LED daytime running lights with follow-home functionality. Cruise control is a major omission for the price, but six airbags and electronic stability control (ESC) are included.
The interior in which most of those features are housed, however, isn’t so impressive. The Preve suffers badly from poor fit and finish. On our test car the seat trim was loose, the dark woodgrain passenger dash panel jutted out several millimetres from the adjoining central piece, and the otherwise decent textured-bathmat-style dashtop plastic joined unevenly at the A-pillar base.
There are ergonomic problems, too. The steering wheel adjusts only for height yet it doesn’t go high enough, and the audio buttons on it don’t illuminate at night. The audio system itself has fiddly and poorly labelled buttons, and a basic red pixellated display.
If sprawling space is more of a priority than accurate panel fit and tactile controls, however, then the Proton Preve does ‘prove’ decent.
Unlike with the 510-litre Pulsar, cargo capacity further expands in the Preve thanks to the inclusion of 60:40 split-fold rear seats, though as with the Nissan the Proton gets luggage-crushing, antiquated ‘gooseneck’ bootlid hinges. The lack of a release button on the key fob will stump some (as it did yours truly), though despite appearances the boot can be opened remotely by holding down the door unlock button for three seconds.
Switch to the engine specifications side of the brochure, then drive the Preve, and it is found lacking both on paper and on the road. All non-turbocharged rivals with the exception of the Focus Ambiente have larger engines than the 1.6-litre Proton, and even then the Ford has more power and torque, and is lighter.
Power of 80kW (produced at 5750rpm) and torque of 150Nm (at 4000rpm) just isn’t enough to push a 1325kg sedan. The Preve is painfully sluggish off the mark. When pressed it also puts crosses across each of the letters of the NVH acronym with retrograde levels of noise, vibration, and harshness.
Even when reversing on light throttle, vibrations stream through the steering wheel, pedals and dash – and the CVT even made the engine stall once. On coarse chip bitumen, particularly, road noise fights with the thrashy engine.
Proton quotes 0-100km/h in 12.5 seconds – or about 20 per cent slower than the vast majority of rivals. Claimed consumption of 8.0L/100km is also higher by around the same percentage compared with competitors such as the 1.6-litre Focus (6.5L) and 1.8-litre Pulsar (6.7L). At least the Proton Preve didn’t exceed its ADR figure by too much on the test, recording 9.3L/100km during an even mix of urban, freeway and hard driving.
Under maximum throttle the CVT holds revs at 5200rpm, even in the alternative S mode, which is curious because peak power arrives 550rpm later. With no tipshifter facility or steering wheel paddles, the maximum 80kW isn't ever actually delivered.
The CVT works best in undemanding situations, particularly on the freeway where it slips to a relaxed 2500rpm when travelling at 120km/h. On slight inclines around town the CVT subtly raises revs to disguise the grunt deficit, improving refinement compared with a traditional automatic that would need to aggressively slur back several gears.
The Preve’s suspension tune proves reasonably impressive on the open road, too.
Around town the rebound damping rates are too quick, and the low-speed ride is lumpy. But wearing sensible tall-profile 16-inch rubber, the suspension – tuned by Lotus, says Proton – deals well with larger ruts and irregulations.
The harder the Proton Preve is punted on a poorly surfaced twisting slice of bitumen, the better it feels. Where the Pulsar is soft but balanced, and the Mitsubishi Lancer soggy and lacking control, the Proton sits flat, keeps its body movements tight and grips decently.
Although it resists understeer well up to a point, the front end still isn’t completely sharp and it lacks the adjustability for which its best rivals are known – instead of tightening its line when the throttle is lifted mid corner, the Proton simply feels planted and continues its path of mild understeer.
The regular hydraulic-mechanical power steering feels vague on centre and in the first movements, and it isn’t particularly quick. But it becomes nicely meaty on the move – far more weighty than other small cars – and quite direct when using more lock.
On long radius sweepers, just point, hold and watch the Preve maintain the requested line without requiring adjustment.
Decent dynamics, in addition to free servicing and a roomy cabin, aren’t enough to offset the flawed design, below-average performance, lack of refinement, and poor fit and finish of the Proton Preve.
For the price, it should at least offer the 103kW/205Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine available overseas – Proton’s first turbo engine will arrive later this year, but no doubt for a higher cost. Even then, more power would only solve one of this car’s several issues.
The Proton Preve should be priced at least $4000 cheaper, to be reasonably competitive against light sedans such as the Holden Barina and Nissan Almera. It is better than the Chery J3 that sells for $6000 less, but the Proton isn't necessarily 35 per cent better, and it certainly shares some of the Chinese-made hatchback’s quality and refinement shortfalls.