30 August 2013

Proton Suprima S Review & Test Drive: The Unpolished Gem

It has been two weeks since Proton Suprima S hits the ground, and Proton itself said Suprima S is about to surpass its target of 750 units sold permonth, so I guess it is quite well received for its niche. I had a go in the car and thinks Suprima S is quite well conceived, albeit still needs some polishing, preferably from the experienced-global hand. There's a lot of likeable points and it represent the best Proton to date.

As an introduction, repeating the launch article (Read all the details of Proton Suprima S HERE) , Proton Suprima S is the hatchback derivative of Proton Preve. It is 107mm shorter while other dimension remain status quo. It comes in two version, all powered the turbocharged 1.6L mill punching 140PS and 205Nm of power and torque and can only be had with CVT gearbox. The cheapest version goes for RM76,388 while the top version won't give much change for your RM80,000.

Now lets unravel Proton Suprima S slowly,start with the styling. Firstly, styling is subjective so there's no correct ugliness or wrong beauty. Personally, since Proton Gen2 and Proton Satria Neo, Proton hardly makes good looking car, as it keeps churning something close to mid 90's Korean design effort from Saga BLM onwards. Things in for a change for Proton Preve, the claim was it was penned by Italdesign Giugiaro although one wonder how dominant that legendary Italdesign was during the process. Fortunately, Suprima S saves Preve element pretty well, as if Preve is the booted version of Suprima S instead of the de-booted of the former. It has to be appreciated under the light reflection of the environment instead of the camera lens. The intricacies of the rear fascia with its intertwined of protruding lights and multi-faceted surfacing actually works well. Trust me, look for one on the road instead of showroom and you'll know it.

Proton redesign the upper and lower grille insert,as well as fog lamp housing

It appears solid, somewhat further accentuated by the 17' alloy wheel which gives it a ground hugging stance. The reverse-angled rear door, chunky C-pillar and the tailgate spoiler gives it a sporty pretension. The over-sized rear bumper lower garnish helps in breaking the visual mass and lightened the rear end appearance, but the totally hidden exhaust make it subdued again. It is visually acceptable, although not arresting one like the Korean, or impart tense-solidity like the European. I still think Proton should employ Royal College of Art student which makes up a good statistic of global-level designer instead of sticking to employing people who graduated from the same town all the way.
The interior wears similar clothes to the 2012 Proton Preve. Key differentiation come by playing color palette. I am not a fans of Preve dashboard, as it has a vast emptiness on its fascias. There's so many unfilled voids as Proton is running out of features that have its switch/button on the dashboard. The dark trim on Preve somewhat masked this (although the small screen infotainment is a glaring flaw), but the cubic-motif silver trim on Suprima S makes the emptiness more obvious. The single surfacing for the dashboard fascia further accentuate this. I am sure if the fascia is broken into at least two planes, one for the audio system while the lower one pushed slightly inwards while accommodating the dials for air conditioning will reduce the empty feeling somewhat. However, good quality plastic used throughout the essential surface and the infotainment is now 7' in size so there's plus points to note.

Although Proton stylist has brightened the central fascia by silver insert, the new found light was clawed back by the high gloss black trim used on the gearknob and steering wheel. The paddle shifter is finished in the same dark color. However, all is not lost. Out goes the water repellent fabric upholstery and in comes a soft leather with good quality feeling. It occupies the seats, door trim and handbrake lever (Premium version only).

Practicality is very good. None of Preve cabin spaciousness is lost in the de-booting process. Not un-like many cars in the budget segment, the painted metal can still be seen in the cabin particularly on the untrimmed surface of the door frame, both front and rear. The boot volume has been reduced by massive 200L down to 309L VDA although the swept volume is still significant 427L provided you can pack your things in plastic bag so that it can be squeezed around. The fully-flat rear seat folding mechanism will come handy when needed.

Driving is height adjustable, but I feel it is a tad too high even at its lowest position. The correct combination of seat and steering could be better but this is no deal-breaker. At all. More discussion point after the jump.

Second talking is quality. There's no doubt Proton has invest its resources to improve on this. One won't be perceived intelligent if his/her talking point still revolves around power window or broken fuel lid, as those were in the past. Get over your feeling from the past please as Waja time is so last decade. However, what is lacking is the overall cohesiveness of perceived quality, something that is quite hard to objectively quantify but not impossible. For example, tactility. The audio switches on the steering is far from tactile. There's no uniform feeling in each of their pressing. Same goes to the centre console dials. Proton should invest more in this, find the exact force exerted by the Japanese/European car button/dials and imitate them right to the clicking sound.

While we are talking about the button, I feel that the buttons are placed far too outward, too close to the wheel rim. Mounted it more inwards and position them slightly more inwards from the rim, if the tilted vertical plane is used I think will make them more intuitive to use. On my test drive unit, the gear lever movement is far from slick, it is sticky to slide fore and aft. But this could be isolated case. I also think the fitting of the B-pillar upper and lower trim mating point is not that flush, with the inner ribs quite visible. But this could be only applicable to ex-automotive engineer's eye like me, it will go un-noticed to the public.

The driving session was conducted within the short span, enough to set the impression of the potential buyer. The Suprima S Premium starts with the starter button which still requires you to insert the key ( don't criticize, Mercedes C-Class is also the same) and on standstill the cabin is well muted. Squeezing the gas pedal slowly moves the car (more later) and the road noise is well suppress, and the "ngong ngong ngong" sound heard during the Proton Preve Test Drive (read HERE) is no longer around.

The Protronic CVT gearbox has dual mode, once is infinity variable mode while the other one is 7 preset ratio selectable by nudging the gear lever or paddle shifter. Both mode are night and day different from each other. Fully auto mode is suited for relaxed driving where CVT is at its best. You'll even forget the car is turbocharged such is the sheer relaxation. Forward progress is slow, although the initial bite is far better than the early batch Proton Preve. Stand on the gas, the thrust is sufficient, but not quick. Slide the gear lever right to manual mode change its behavior completely. Different animal it becomes. Proton Suprima S become sensitive to the gas pedal, and by holding to fixed ratio for a certain interval allows the torque to come into play and thrust the car more sprightly than in automatic mode. It feels faster, like a turbocharged car should. However, the gearbox will still shift if you pressed the gas hard enough and it won't hold your selected gear.  The preset ratios can actually be felt, the engine braking is appreciable upon shifting down gear by gear.

As with most car, manual downshifting is more satisfying than upshifting. Similar trend is observed in Mazda6 2.0 Skyactiv (check it out HERE). The precision is quite good actually for a spirited drive. The said drive is further aided by the retune suspension. I feel Proton Preve is, although composed, is a bit soft and willowy. None of this feeling is felt in Suprima S. Tauter, more composed and fair bit stiffer is a concise way to sum it up. The tight corner can be taken at silly speed. I once overspeed in one corner because I was finding the gear position display (buried in the SID, need to be read in manual mode) but I really enjoy the drive. 

Other way to sum it : great handling, good steering feel and overall one-up than Proton Preve. It should appeal to those who appreciate the finer handling and does not mind slightly bumpier ride.

Which lead us to the final verdict, how good is Proton Suprima S then? Well, similar to other recent Proton, it is better than the car before it. Proton is catching up, but quantum leap is what needed to stand the same height with other established manufacturer. This is the topic debated for so long, how many years is needed to mature up? There's no right timeline, but hiring an experienced leader could help.

Proton Suprima S fall short from the sum of all its part. Despite of its promising handling, good look, soft touch plastic, Android infotainment, everything does not gelled up to become a solid class leader. That's why people with RM80k budget will still look to Toyota Vios and other option. You can't blame their perceived conclusion and inability to compare car objectively. Compared to Proton Suprima S, despite other cars inferiority in terms of value for money, their part summation totalled up to an undoubted talented little car, even if they sparkling and charming in nothing. This is the art of nothingness.

The design could be spiced up further, with more coherent of theme flowing from front bumper to the rear exhaust, with more attractive cabin design, better ergonomics, superior fittings, slicker lever, more tactile button and combined with better drivetrain package which I believe could propel Proton to a greater height. All they need is the leader to tell them this, coach the right compromise and ensure the right deliverable and potentially the product can be a greater sum of its part. Till then, good try. A gem? Yes but unpolished one.

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