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Proton S70 first drive: Finally the Malaysian Honda Civic we’re looking for? (VIDEO)

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 27 — For decades, Malaysians have been clamouring for a legitimate homegrown alternative to the C-segment sedan, as cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla keep being priced further and further out of the reach of mainstream buyers. To its credit, national carmaker Proton tried its best with the Waja, Persona and Prevé, but while these cars were credible in their own way, they were always considered “less than” compared to the big guns from Japan.

Now, three years after the Prevé was discontinued, Proton is returning to the C-segment sedan market with the S70. It’s the fourth car to be based on part-owner Geely’s products, and the company’s first all-new four-door since the current Persona debuted in 2016. With the might of its Chinese investor behind it, the company finally has the resources to go toe-to-toe with its competition.

Except it doesn’t. It’s based on a B-segment platform, it isn’t quite as well equipped and it’s not as powerful as some of its competition. The saving grace is that the S70 is set to undercut the Civic and Corolla by a considerable margin in terms of price. Is that enough for us to look beyond some of its baked-in shortcomings?

Pricing will be crucial

We finally have a launch date for the S70, which will make its debut tomorrow, November 28. However, we still don’t know how much it costs, but employees at the preview event did tell us it will be within the ballpark of the Honda City and Toyota Vios. As such, you can expect it to be priced between RM80,000 to RM100,000.

Proton’s argument is that for the same money, you’ll get a physically larger car with a greater level of standard equipment, build quality, technology (debatable, but we’ll get to that later) and performance. The fact that the S70 is being mentioned in the same breath as the Civic and Corolla is almost secondary, even though it does hold its own in some aspects.

Not least of which is its size. Proton has not released any dimensions just yet, but the S70 is practically identical to the fourth-generation Geely Emgrand, which is sold in China and the Philippines. That car measures 4,638mm long, 1,820mm wide and 1,460mm tall, making it larger than the Corolla and wider and taller than the Civic to boot. It’s the wheelbase that betrays the car’s B-segment roots—at 2,650mm, it’s barely any longer than the City and Vios’, and comfortably shaded by those cars’ bigger siblings.

Under the skin, the S70 uses Geely’s B-segment Modular Platform (BMA), the same one you’ll find underpinning the X50. Like the SUV, it uses MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam rear axle; Proton wasn’t able to switch to a multilink setup like it did with the X90, which is built on a D-segment platform. That puts it at a disadvantage relative to the Civic and Corolla, although, as we found out during the drive, the S70 managed to acquit itself very well—despite fighting with one arm behind its back.

Conventionally handsome, if a bit nondescript

The S70 shares almost its entire design with the Emgrand, so it too looks conventionally handsome, if a little bland and outdated. Whereas the Civic in particular brings premium design to the C-segment with its matured and confident aesthetic, the Proton looks like it was designed five years ago. That’s not to say that it’s ugly by any stretch of the imagination, only that it doesn’t bring much new to the table.

In fact, the only real flourish is the Audi-style full-width taillight bar. Available only on the Premium, Flagship and Flagship X variants (together with the full-LED headlights), it is made up of 190 LEDs and can play a cool welcome and departure animation when you unlock and lock the car. Proton’s sole contribution is the “Infinite Weave” grille, which features a songket-inspired diamond pin design that radiates outwards, emphasising the car’s already generous width.

As for colours, the S70 is available in Snow White, Space Grey, Marine Blue and the new tropical-inspired Teal Bayou Green. The Marine Blue example you see here sports a locally-designed bodykit and boot lid lip spoiler, and so far, Proton has yet to indicate whether these will be offered a cost extra or bundled into a specific trim level—likely the Flagship X variant.

Modern design with some shortcomings

Inside, the S70 carries over the Emgrand’s modern, minimalist design, with a clean horizontal dashboard, full-width air-con vent design and wide centre console. Despite this, the cabin features all the physical controls you’d want, such as hard steering wheel, window and door mirror buttons and the air-con switches. This may seem trivial, but plenty of carmakers have migrated all functionality to the centre touchscreen, so it’s good that Proton—or, in this case, Geely—has bucked this trend.

Speaking of which, the technology on-board the range-topping Flagship and Flagship X models includes a 10.25-inch instrument display and a 12.3-inch centre touchscreen, the latter running on Proton’s Atlas operating system. Operation is fuss-free, and the displays are very much legible (if a little simplistic as is the case with the instrument cluster).

Unfortunately Proton has still seen fit not to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the company clearly continuing to insist people use its in-car apps. It has at least indicated that CarPlay and Android Auto integration is on the cards, but it will require a change in hardware, so those who buy the S70 now won’t get them. Another minor niggle is that opening and closing the Flagship X’s sunroof, which comes with a manual sunshade, can only be done either by voice or, more controversially, digging into the touchscreen.

Build quality is generally very good, the dash being covered in soft-touch materials—the grille’s songket pattern is repeated in the lower half, a nice local touch. But whereas other C-segment models continue using plush slush mouldings in the door cards, they’re hard plastic in the S70. Do bear in mind, however, that this is still miles better than the B-segment norm, which limit the use soft-touch materials to smaller areas on the dash.

More importantly, the S70 provides ample storage space in the centre console, including a large bin underneath the armrest that can be expanded by removing one of the cupholders. The Flagship and Flagship X models also get a powered driver’s seat that offers lots of adjustment, although the passenger seat retains manual adjustment no matter how high up you go in the range.

Despite the modest wheelbase, the S70 still offers plenty of head- and legroom for rear passengers, and the ample width means three adults should be able to sit comfortably side-by-side. They also get their own air-con vents, USB-A and USB-C ports and armrest with integrated cupholders. At the back, you’ll find a generous 500-litre boot, although it’s not as neatly finished as other C-segment models, with large areas of exposed, unpainted metal. Unlike the Vios, the S70 comes with a 60:40 split-folding rear seats and a space saver spare tyre.

Turbo torque squandered by sluggish throttle response

Despite the S70 looking like a carbon copy of the Emgrand, Proton has actually done quite a bit of reengineering to its sedan, albeit still using Geely components. Instead of a wheezy naturally-aspirated engine, you get the 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol mill that has proliferated across the company’s SUV lineup. Here, it’s in its least powerful port-injected (no direct injection here, sadly) version, although outputs of 110kW (148hp) and 226Nm are still nothing to be sneezed at. All this gets sent to the front wheels through a seven-speed wet dual-clutch transmission.

As you can imagine, the S70, while hardly a sports car, is no slouch—we managed to get from zero to 100km/h in 9.3 seconds at the preview event, comfortably dispatching the Honda City (nearly a second slower) and Toyota Vios (two seconds slower) in a drag race. But these figures don’t tell the full story, because the Proton can feel surprisingly (and frustratingly) sluggish—and this has everything to do with the engine’s response.

You see, there’s about a half-second delay between your foot squeezing the throttle and the car actually accelerating. Whether that’s to do with turbo lag or the baked-in throttle mapping, the fact of the matter is the S70’s initial laziness to get going squanders its ample torque. In fact, in Sport mode it’s actually a little dangerous, because while the delay is still there, the engine’s torque delivery is more abrupt, so any throttle input is met by no response at all followed by a load of turbo boost that rockets the car forwards.

The silver lining is that the cars we drove were pre-production units, so Proton still has some scope to retune the S70 to offer a more direct throttle response. It would be wise to do so.

Pleasing ride and handling balance

One area that Proton has got absolutely right is the ride and handling balance. To be fair, our time with the S70 was limited to two loops of the inner section of the company’s Shah Alam test track, consisting of a slalom and a very short “rough road” section. Even so, it was clear that the comfort-oriented sedan was capable of offering a good amount of compliance without sacrificing composure in the corners too much.

Fears of the rudimentary torsion beam leading to a lack of sophistication in terms of road manners were unfounded. Over rutted patches of concrete, the S70 transmitted barely a hint of tremor into the cabin, and it stayed unruffled even over large undulations. Despite this, the car handled the slalom well, maintaining poise through large and abrupt changes in direction, even though the modest grip levels from the Goodyear Assurance Triplemax 2 tyres did put a limit on the amount of speed I could carry.

Having to pay more for AEB is silly

Another area where Proton has put a lot of effort in is the driver assists. There has been extensive reengineering done to the Emgrand (which does not come with these features anywhere in the world) to ensure that the S70 can be had with autonomous emergency braking and Level 2 semi-autonomous driving functions like adaptive cruise control and lane centring assist.

In typical Proton fashion, however, the company has decided to reserve these features for the Flagship and Flagship X models, with the Executive and Premium variants not even getting AEB. That’s not a good look for the carmaker at a time when practically every B-segment model sold today comes fully featured in terms of driver assists. Mercifully, six airbags are offered as standard.

Not exactly a Civic beater, but a value champion nevertheless

Safety faux pas aside, the S70 should represent excellent value for money—especially if Proton keeps its promise of offering the car at B-segment prices. It would certainly be an attractive proposition: a larger, more imposing car with a nicer interior and a punchy turbo engine that’s more powerful than anything else in the price range (with the obvious caveat that the throttle needs to be significantly more responsive to take advantage of this).

What the S70 definitely isn’t is an out-and-out competitor to established C-segment sedans. Despite impressing in this short test drive, it was obvious that it lacked the final degree of polish of larger Japanese models—particularly as the 11th-generation Honda Civic continues to push class boundaries in terms of fit and finish, ride comfort and handling.

That’s not to say that the S70 isn’t without merit. On the contrary, it offers plenty of kit, a decent turn of speed and what on first blush appears to be an extraordinarily plush ride—all wrapped up in a not-unattractive design. The price (if it’s as low as hoped) will get people through the door, but it’s not the only selling point. All-in-all, it’s a very welcome return to making bigger sedans, and another strong effort in what is turning out to be a knockout partnership with Geely. Now, about that electric vehicle that Tengku Zafrul Aziz was talking about... — SoyaCincau