The Persona has been one of Proton’s most successful models in recent memory. At a time when Proton’s reputation was taking a beating and bleeding market share, the Persona in 2007 was the model that successfully stemmed the decline and helped atone for the series of less-than-successful hatchback models that came before, namely the Gen.2, Satria Neo, and Savvy.
Interestingly, the Persona was actually something of an afterthought, a sedan derived by stretching the Gen.2’s rear overhangs. More crucially perhaps, the Persona addressed many of the Gen.2’s flaws and became well-accepted among Malaysians. Even alongside the newer Preve, the Persona continued to sell in respectable numbers.
Still, age was counting against Proton’s long-serving stalwart, and the time for a new Persona had come. Like its predecessor, the all-new Persona is a hatchback-derived sedan. Difference between then and now is that whilst the predecessor s built on the C-segment-sized Gen.2 platform, the newer one sits on Iriz underpinnings, meaning that the nameplate has effectively migrated downwards in segment albeit still occupying the same pricing space as before.
Further mirroring its predecessor’s narrative, the new Persona is once again called upon to be Proton saviour; the car to revive Proton’s fortunes. To show us what its latest baby is made of, Proton let the Malaysian motoring media loose with a fleet of Personas on a journey from KL to Kuantan and back. Can the same success story be told twice?
Engine: 1.6-litre, Inline-4, Transverse, VVT
Power: 107hp @ 5,750rpm
Torque: 150Nm @ 4,000rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual / CVT, FWD
Safety: 2-6 airbags, ABS, ESC, Traction Control, Hill-Hold Assist, ISOFIX (rear)
Origins: Locally-manufactured at Tanjung Malim
Powered exclusively by Proton’s latest 1.6-litre naturally-aspirated VVT engine, the Persona is offered with a choice of three trim levels – Standard, Executive, and Premium. Only the base Standard model offers the choice between manual and continuously variable transmissions; Executive and Premium variants are CVT only.
Prices of the Persona start from RM46,800 (OTR with insurance) for the Standard model with manual transmission, with the flagship Premium CVT variant topping things off at RM59,800. In a move to consolidate its line-up, Proton has also made the decision to phase out lower variants of the Preve to make way for the Persona.
To date, Proton has collected about 8,000 orders for the new Persona, with over a thousand having been delivered to customers. The range-topping Premium CVT variant accounts for 45% of orders thus far; later on, however, we expect a more even spread to the lower variants.
Only 10% of buyers have opted for manual transmission; a disproportionately low fraction in totality, but double of what Perodua gets for stick-shifting Bezzas. Tellingly, it suggests there is a bigger mix of the driving enthusiast crowd in Proton’s order books.
All variants of the Persona come with dual frontal airbags, ABS, electronic stability control, and ISOFIX amongst a generous suite of safety features. The range-topping Premium model adds side and curtain airbags to the mix along with a reverse camera integrated to its 2 DIN touchscreen system. This commendably high baseline gives the Persona a 5-star safety rating by ASEAN NCAP applicable across the range without exception.
Being built on a smaller platform, the new Persona naturally occupies a smaller footprint than its predecessor; its waistline shrinking from 4,477mm long by 1,725mm wide to 4,387mm long by 1,722mm wide. Wheelbase has similarly contracted, from 2,600mm to 2,555mm, although the new car is taller than before, rising from 1,438mm to 1,554mm.
Proportions-wise, the new model does not wear the three-box look as naturally as the predecessor did. The boot area, in particular, looks slab-sided and makes the car look under-tyred in the standard-fit 15-inch rims – not that the wheel arches look large enough to accommodate much bigger size of rubber.
Whilst wearing its own distinctive look, the Persona shares common windshield, front fenders, front three-quarter glass, and front doors with the Iriz.
This is the familiar cabin seen from the Iriz, albeit rehashed with a new colour scheme and supposedly improved quality. Subjectively, we found the tactile feel of our test car’s air-con switches to be a bit more convincing than the Iriz, but the transmission lever's lock button is still too loose for our liking.
To add another piece of constructive criticism to the cabin, the centre console cubby holes are well partitioned, but lacking in depth – expect things to fly off if you ever need to engage in extreme maneuvers.
Enlarged rear seats now offer far superior thigh support over the older model, commendably without sacrificing too much headroom. Upper variants offer 60:40 split-folding seat backs, but without a flat loading floor to the boot. The Standard model with fixed seat backs gets additional structural braces to reinforce the already strong structure.
In feedback to our previous stories on this car, many readers have commented on the lack of adjustable rear headrests that were present in both the previous Persona as well as the current model’s donor car, the Iriz. Proton folks were frank enough to admit this was a cost-driven omission, but has assured us that from a safety perspective, the fixed headrests employed in this model delivers the required whiplash protection.
How does it Drive?
As expected, the Persona’s ride and handling far surpasses anything within its price range. At highway speeds it feels composed, secure, and firmly hunkered down on the road. The electric power steering feels slightly aloof compared to older models with hydraulic assist, but is quick and accurate enough to satisfy.
Body movements also feel reassuringly controlled. For the average driver, it is a satisfactory setup; only the enthusiasts among us will miss the finer control afforded by the predecessor’s fully independent suspension setup. The solid fundamentals of this car was amply demonstrated in the closed demo session where, even with ESC switched off, the Persona requires very deliberate and abrupt steering inputs to unsettle. (Our friends at PanduLaju recorded a couple of videos that showed the Persona's performance at an obstacle avoidance course with ESC switched on and off)
Further contributing to our highly positive impressions is a vastly improved CVT. Although hardware remains identical to what the Iriz gets, the software has been expertly recalibrated. Not only is the dreadful drone that plagued earlier Proton efforts with the Punch CVT markedly reduced, kick down response has been made sharper, and the car takes off from standstill with more conviction.
Overall feel of the transmission is also more natural, even if it doesn’t quite match the expert levels of CVT calibration mastered by seasoned exponents of the transmission such as Toyota or Nissan. Also noteworthy is the CVT’s pro-active grade logic control system, which provides a greater sense of control by holding the transmission to a lower ratio when descending steeper slopes.
If you are game to handle a clutch pedal, things get even better in the manual model. The 5-speed ‘box by Getrag slots with good throw and precision, with pedal calibration much improved over the Iriz. Brake pedal modulation feels better nuanced, in turn enabling far easier execution of smooth heel-and-toe downshifts. The anchors bite convincingly too, mind. A waste then, that better-heeled enthusiasts are not offered the choice of a higher-specced stick-shifting variant.
How Comfortable Is It?
Like other models in the Proton range, the Persona’s dynamic sharpness comes without any penalties in ride comfort. In fact, they come hand in hand. Damping is excellent, with the chassis exhibiting extremely sophisticated levels of composure when traversing poor surfaces.
Quietness on the move has never been a quality commonly associated with any Proton model, but the new Persona positively addresses this shortcoming. The decision to rearrange the engine room’s configuration to three mounts as opposed to four in the Iriz has paid clear dividends in minimizing unwanted vibrations at source.
On the move, we also noticed good suppression of external sources of noise such as wind and tyre roar. For the first time in a Proton vehicle, conversations can be carried at normal volume at highway speeds. This is, by far, the most refined vehicle Proton has ever produced.
How Economical Is it?
A simple fuel economy challenge was included in the drive programme. Over a 117km route across the state of Pahang from Jengka to Tanjung Lumpur, majority of the participating cars (all being CVT units) achieved readings between 5.4 and 5.7 litres/100km on their trip computers, all of which were reset at the start of the route.
To give the numbers a sense of realism, the drive organizers imposed a time restriction, requiring all cars to complete the route with a minimum timeframe of two hours, meaning we had to maintain average speeds of 80 to 85 km/h in order to complete the challenge. The route itself offered an even mix of highway and trunk road driving before ending in rush hour downtown traffic at the heart of Kuantan.
We switched over to a manual transmission unit for the journey home. Driven with greater exuberance, the said vehicle returned an average consumption of 8.3 litres/100km; incidentally the same figure attained when we recently reviewed the Iriz 1.6 manual. Between the two extremes, we reckon most users can expect to average in the region of 6 – 7 litres/100km in their daily grind.
Servicing costs would be identical to the Iriz, with regular maintenance scheduled at 10,000km intervals. Additionally, early takers who complete their purchase of the Persona before the end of September get three years of free servicing covering parts and labour.
Against The Competition
Whilst technically a B-segment sedan, the Persona's pricing advantage mean that peers of its size such as the Toyota Vios and Honda City cannot be regarded as its proper competition. In fact, it can be said that the Persona almost occupies a pricing niche of its own with the closest-priced sedan of comparable size, the Nissan Almera, a further RM10k north.
Realistically, the 1.6-litre Persona will most likely be cross-shopped by buyers against the smaller Perodua Bezza 1.3 instead, which retails between RM42,800 and RM50,800. Only the range-topping 1.3 Advance model of the Bezza really ventures into the Persona's turf, however. Lower-specced versions of Perodua's sedan will have the new Saga to deal with, which is reputed to be targeting a pricing range of RM35,000 to RM45,000.
Whilst conceding a smaller engine and body size, the Bezza 1.3 Advance is not entirely outgunned by the Persona. It matches the Proton's 5-star ASEAN NCAP rating with dual airbags and ESC. Thanks to Perodua's superior packaging capabilities, the Bezza also does not feel any less spacious than the Persona. Switchgear quality is also better in the Bezza, thanks to Perodua having access to the Toyota parts bin. We also expect the Perodua to hold its value better in the resale market.
Arguing in the Proton's favour, however, the Bezza does not come anywhere close to matching the Persona's handling assuredness. The latter simply feels more planted at high speeds whilst also managing to feel positively communicative at the helm.
Proton would love to have a case of history repeating itself with the Persona. Parallels with the predecessor model are there; like how the previous Persona refined the rough edges of the Gen.2, so has the current one addressed shortcomings of the Iriz. There is certainly room to improve, but be in no doubt that this is a product of very good pedigree.
Existing owners of the outgoing Persona will perhaps find it difficult to look at the new one and envision an upgrade due to its reduced bodily dimensions. The enthusiasts among us also mourn having the multi-link rear axle being replaced by a torsion beam.
In other ways, however, the new Persona does carry on the spirit of the original model in offering unbeatable value for money as well as a solid driving experience. It is an affordable car for the people, but infused with just enough verve that enthusiasts with a budget can appreciate all the same.