When queried at the recent media preview as to how the brand image of Proton can be improved, Proton CEO Dr. Li Chunrong’s reply was unequivocal – the product would have to speak for itself. A few days prior to the Proton X70’s unmasking (the tease isn’t over yet), we were at a test track some 4,000km away on the outskirts of Beijing trialling no less than 11 home-grown passenger vehicles, and one of them was none other than the Geely Boyue, the Proton X70’s Chinese twin.
Of course, this report is by no means a definitive account of how the Proton X70 would behave on our roads; test tracks tend to have smooth surfaces which are quite different from public roads, though the one we would drive the Boyue on was saturated from a morning shower. The dynamic exercises comprised of a slalom, a full-bore stop from around 90km/h and a string of tight corners. The X70 also underwent said a conversion from left-hand drive and according to Proton, its own flavour of chassis tuning to suit local conditions. Nevertheless, we expect its characteristics to be largely similar to the Boyue you see here.
Much more than funny-sounding names
It’s easy to be a sceptic for there isn’t much of a track record for Chinese auto brands in Malaysia to speak of, but to dismiss them for their lack of achievement thus far would be foolhardy. Look at where Huawei and Xiaomi stand today, so much has changed in China, so quickly. For context, Geely is the fastest growing auto brand in China and is currently ranked second in overall market share (6.24%) after posting strong sales in the first seven months of 2018. The brand from Hangzhou is only behind long-time powerhouse Volkswagen (13.42%) but has since nudged ahead of Honda (5.79%), Toyota (5.51%) and Nissan (4.63%).
Since its launch in March 2016, the Boyue has chalked up close to 600,000 units in total sales (till July 2018), which works out to around 20,000 units a month. It is Geely’s most popular model in its 38-car line-up and the fourth best-selling SUV in China currently, with only the Haval H6, Baojun 510 (a smaller, lower-priced alternative) and Volkswagen Tiguan ahead of it.
Original exterior design, premium interior
Ever since the Boyue was revealed as the next new Proton model, the response among Malaysians been largely positive but also one of curiosity. Styling preference is subjective of course, but the Boyue, penned by former Volvo design head Peter Horbury does look original and tidy, with its raked window and shoulder lines and blacked out C-pillars the standout styling cues. By adopting the facelifted 2018 edition of the Boyue that shows off more intricate detailing, especially on the bumpers, you could say that Proton’s first SUV is starting life on the front foot.
If the exterior doesn’t grab your attention, the interior most likely would, and it serves as a shot across the bow to its competitors. In the limited time spent with the Boyue, I can’t recall coming in contact which any part of the cabin that felt compromised by costs. The dashboard is made large swatches of soft touch materials along with a wide expanse of faux brushed aluminium that looks convincing and pleasing to the eye. Switchgear and buttons are of the matte textured variety and they feel tactile and clicky. This level of quality seems like an overkill, yet it is what car buyers in China expect these days.
The equipment on display on our test unit is impressive too; fully digital instrument cluster along with an eight-inch 720p infotainment touch screen, electronic park brake with auto hold function, dual-zone climate control, powered front seats with Nappa cowhide (also found on the flat-bottom steering) and 360-view reverse camera. We found out later on that the Boyue sampled wasn’t even the most expensive variant but it was already equipped with lane departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control and blind spot warning, to name but a few active safety features. Surely then there has to be something amiss with the Boyue’s interior packaging…only that there isn’t. Legroom is generous on a floor that’s nearly flat, there are large air-con vents and the spacious trunk is free from intrusions. We are getting serious here.
Behind the wheel of the Boyue
A slalom course can sometimes make or break a car, or in our case, a tallish SUV. Expectations weren’t high admittedly but the Boyue surprised us by ducking between the cones with ease, the underlining behaviour being one of predictability which is then manifested in marked increases in confidence and speed after each run. No, it probably won’t outpace a VW Tiguan or even a Mazda CX-5 in this discipline, but the Boyue’s inherent stability means that the electronic nannies were rarely called into action to keep the vehicle on the intended path, something which can’t be said for other Chinese-branded SUVs tested on the day.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Volvo engineers had lent a hand in maximising the potential of the fully-independent front strut and rear multilink set up, the Boyue offering good resistance to body roll once past the initial degree of suspension compliance. The steering, an electrical powered unit, maintained good directional response even when subjected to heavy lateral loads, and never washed out as some other cars did in the test. The results were once again surprising.
Next up was the braking test which necessitated accelerating from idle to around 80km/h to 90km/h before executing a full-bore stop. The Boyue – powered by a 183hp/285Nm 1.8-litre direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic of Aisin origins (we think) driving its front wheels – felt a little soft off the line considering the amount of torque it had on paper, possibly hampered by its near 1690kg kerb weight even if the acceleration was smooth and linear.
What the braking runs did confirm was that the engine and transmission remained civil when a turn of speed was required. Even though there wasn’t a Honda CR-V or a Mazda CX-5 to benchmark against, the Boyue is easily class competitive when it comes to powertrain refinement. Meshing the brake pedal and coming to a reassuringly undramatic stop thereafter further reaffirmed what the Boyue managed at the slalom – that the suspension is properly sorted.
Ride comfort will have to be assessed some other time on public roads, though that didn’t stop us from running the Boyue over gnarly chicanes on the way back to the pits. Again, the Geely SUV showed composure with an unfussy ride over the rumble strips. If Proton have further fine-tuned the dynamics of the Boyue to take on Malaysian roads, then good times lie ahead for the X70.
Competition makes better cars
When you consider that foreign brands make up for more than 50% of passenger car sales in China (over 24 million units last year) and that the biggest market in the world usually gets the best products earlier than other regions, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Boyue turned out to be this competitive. Geely has had no choice but to compete (and is winning), it’s just that the rest of the world is largely unaware of the giant strides made by the leading Chinese auto manufacturer. Well, it won’t be the case anymore as the Boyue’s near identical twin, the Proton X70, is unleashed upon Malaysians. Prepare to be surprised.
Geely Boyue 1.8TD
Price: RMB 151,800 Engine: 1.8-litre turbocharged 4-cyl, FWD Output: 183hp / 285Nm Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-100km/h in 10.0 (est.); top speed 195km/h Wheels/tyres: 225/55 R19 (F&R) Safety: 6 airbags, Electronic Stability Control, BSW, LDW.
(This author was invited by Xingyuan Automotive Information Technology Co. or Xingyuan Auto as part of the Belt & Road Car Media Union to sample a range of vehicles manufactured by Chinese auto manufacturers.)