Review: Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT, stalwart of the entry level [+Video]


The Saga is an emotional product for Proton. The originator, the birth of the brand, and numerous other platitudes abound for what is, for better or worse, the very reason we can lay claim to a Malaysian automotive industry at all. Perhaps that’s why we’re only seeing a third generation after over three decades, because if it ain’t broke…

But it was. Not in the sense that the outgoing Saga was a bad car, but that the game had moved on, even in the A-segment, and the Saga’s updates had largely slowed to trivial aesthetic gimmicks. Now however, to complement its new outlook, are crucial updates to the mechanics and tech to bring the Saga properly into affordable 21st-century motoring.

QUICK FACTS

NameProton Saga Standard (MT)Proton Saga Standard (CVT)Proton Saga Executive (CVT)Proton Saga Premium (CVT)
Engine1,332cc; inline-4, DOHC with VVT
Transmission5-speed manualCVT
Max Power 94 hp @ 5,750 rpm
Max Torque 120 Nm @ 4,000 rpm
Fuel Consumption 5.4 litres per 100km (MT); 5.6 litres per 100km (CVT)
PriceRM36,800RM39,800RM42,800RM45,800

EXTERIOR

A word about styling and packaging: of all the national cars that have to straddle the age demographic with care, the Saga sits on the thinnest line. The design brief probably spells out just one word repeatedly: inoffensive. This is no head turner, but neither is it a divisive sketch that will put potential customers off from even going for a spin. The pressure, we imagine, must be incredible; having to appeal to the youth without alienating more mature audiences.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

Between the two ends of the Saga exists a mild dichotomy, the rear end is actually, dare we say it, somewhat attractive with subtle use of concave surfaces and curves to lend it some sophistication, especially with a chrome bar connecting the rear light clusters. The front is unfortunately a little bland in comparison, but perhaps for Proton’s entry level automobile, this is not such a bad thing. Stealing the thunder from the Persona would not be very desirable.

Fortunately for the Saga however, is that it isn’t a sedan based on a hatchback, the way the Persona is. As such, the window line rises gradually before culminating in a kink, lending the profile a slight wedge and appearing nimbler than before.

Dimensionally there are increases almost everywhere — especially in the length — but the Saga sits slightly lower and maintains the same wheelbase.

INTERIOR

In a word, simple. Everything is where you expect it to be, adjusted and/or toggled the way things have been done almost since the Saga was born. On the wheel of the Premium however, are infotainment and call controls. Finally.

Greys and blacks abound, from the seats to the dash, a bit dull to the eyes but a boon to keep clean. The rear-view mirror integrated reverse camera is a fantastic addition, a feature usually found in cars costing twice as much, if not more.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

It’s when you plonk yourself in the back that you notice what is a legitimate stroke of genius on Proton’s part: a pair of USB charging ports — 1.5A and 2.1A — at the aft section of the tunnel console. This will, once and for all, put an end to your friends, or children, fighting for USB ports up front. Or cupholders for that matter, of which there are six.

THE DRIVE

Under the hood is the smaller of the two Iriz hearts, the VVT-equipped 1.3-litre good for 94 hp and 120 Nm. Not great numbers by any stretch, but gone is the draggy nature of the old IAFM+ mill to be replaced with a new, welcome eagerness.

On the move, proceedings are very familiar. The CVT rubber band is omnipresent, just remind yourself that this ‘box was chosen to aid in fuel economy; a little green leaf on the instrument panel — ECO Drive Assist — lights up, indicating that you’re being gentle with the throttle. Pushing off from standstill requires some advance planning, as the first touch on the throttle spikes the revs, then a short delay, followed by forward motion.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

Strangely, at very low speeds and under mild acceleration, the tranny jerks in a manner similar to a manual when you try to pick up speed in a gear too high. This is perhaps due to the engagement of the clutch, because the transmission employs a mechanical clutch, and not a torque converter.

Where dynamics is concerned however, the story takes a turn for the better. Chuck the Saga into a corner and find surprising grip, thanks to new suspension and a front strut bar, albeit with a lack of feedback. The upside to this is that the wheel feels noticeably lighter than before, especially pronounced during parking manoeuvres.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

Where we heartily commend Proton would be with regards to exemplary NVH levels; all the way up to highway speeds the Saga feels and sounds impressively damped. Even sporting the 15-inch rims of our test car, blemished roads and speed humps were dismissed with new levels of grace the previous Saga could only dream of.

The Saga is comfortable, quiet and refined. Adjectives that have never been used to describe any Sagas, ever.

IS THIS CAR FOR YOU?

Do you require four wheels and an engine delivered in the simplest and most cost-effective package? Then, yes.

The updates in safety alone warrant a long, hard look at the Saga: ABS, EBD, brake assist, stability and traction control, hill-hold assist, dual front airbags, ISOFIX child seat mounts and a driver’s seatbelt reminder. You find all this in the Premium variant only however, so if you are able to spring for it, our suggestion is to go all the way. These are necessities, not luxuries.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

Malaysia’s first national car is back. Yes, the powertrain may not be groundbreaking and the exterior aesthetic may not be cohesive, but this is a milestone in Proton’s road to recovery.

WILL I BUY IT?

This Saga is essentially a bit of a stopgap in the powertrain sense, bridging the period between the previous Saga and an update to come sometime around late-2017 or early-2018 which should sport the new 1.0-litre and 1.2-litre naturally aspirated mills co-developed with Lotus and Ricardo.

Which is not to say that this VVT engine is bad, but there is progress to be made especially in the efficiency sense. The future for the Saga, for the sake of the nameplate, has to be fewer cylinders and smaller displacement, harnessed with a better gearbox.2016 Proton Saga 1.3L Premium CVT Review - AutoBuzz.my

So in the end, unfortunately, the Saga doesn’t quite end happily ever after, at least not for me. The A-Segment sedan with a difference, pardon the pun, would be my choice. The Perodua Bezza offers otherworldly fuel efficiency figures in a decidedly more premium package, and if you were to spring for top spec you would be rewarded with what is possibly the best affordable sedan in the country.

[Words by V.B]

Matthew’s take: Judging by sheer looks alone, the third-generation Proton Saga may not seem all that different. While stylistically similar, the cabin is a vast step up in comfort, insulation and rear legroom. Never has an entry-level Proton impressed in terms of NVH, but this Saga delivered exactly that, and sometimes more. The Perodua Bezza still has the upper hand in build quality and power/drivetrain management, though all that may swing in Proton’s favour once the new engines come along. This Saga is the one many have longed for, and perhaps it’s just a year or two too late to the game. As the saying goes, better late than never! 


IMAGE GALLERY


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