Location: Bowood Hotel, Wiltshire
Date: 5th October 2011
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) held a regional event in October that allowed motoring writers and journalists to test drive a selection of new cars. I managed to grab the keys to eight cars, one of which was the Proton Exora. Here are some thoughts.
The Proton Exora didn’t seem to be in much demand during the day. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn that I was the only person to actually test drive the new Proton MPV. But having had some indirect dealings with Proton in the past, I was keen to give the car a chance. I’ve always felt that Proton has the potential to corner the budget car market, especially now that the likes of Kia and Hyundai are making further moves upmarket. Of course, owning Lotus Cars also gives us petrolheads some hope, but in truth, the company failed to capitalise on the promising springboard given to them by the Satria GTi. A reluctance to upset a loyal but rapidly diminishing fan base meant that the most interesting cars weren’t imported and a lack of refinement and overall quality has meant that Proton has all but been forgotten in the UK. It’s a shame we’ve never got to see the likes of the Satria Neo R3 in the UK as it looks mildy interesting.
It’s easy to forget that just over decades ago, Proton launched in the UK and in doing so helped to reshape the way we buy cars. The year was 1989 and the UK was gripped by recession (sound familiar?), so by offering cheap cars with highly affordable finance packages, Proton struck a chord with UK buyers. The MPI was far from exciting, but with Mitsubishi underpinnings and a lengthy warranty package, it wasn’t long before Proton dealers were popping up everywhere. I think I’m right in saying that at one point, Proton had more dealers than Citroën. Hard to believe now, isn’t it?
But as the economy began to grow again, so too did people’s aspirations and Proton’s product line-up became unappealing. As other car brands improved their range, Proton failed to keep up and the ageing Mitsubishi-based stock became hard to shift. The dealer network shrunk and interest declined. Existing customers remain loyal, but Proton’s biggest challenge is attracting new buyers. The company desperately needs a new product to woo new customers with.
Step forward the Exora, Proton’s first ever foray into the MPV market. I tested a Malaysian-spec car that Proton assures me is quite away from the standard UK buyers can expect when it is launched over here early next year.
On the basis of what I found, this is a good thing as there’s some work to do before the car will be ‘UK-ready’. Fortunately we won’t be getting the 1.6 non-turbo engine that was fitted to the test car. When mounted to the most horrid 4-speed auto ‘box I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing, the engine is gutless, unrefined and woefully disappointing. Attempt an overtake manoeuvre by planting your foot on the gas and the gearbox eventually changes down, makes a lot of noise and does very little in the way of acceleration. The Exora is not a car that wants to be hurried. The good news for UK buyers is that the Exora will come fitted with a 140bhp light pressure turbo, with a choice of a 7-speed CVT or manual gearbox.
I’m not sure what the plans are when it comes to ride and handling, but the Malaysian-spec Exora seems totally inept at coping with British roads. Steering the thing is a genuinely terrifying experience, with so much play in the wheel before it actually responds to your commands. The whole car feels totally detached from the road, with only the almost comical suspension letting you know that you’re attached to the tarmac at all. Each bump and pothole greeted with a bounce that sends you in a constant state of nodding dog. Again, we must hope that the UK car is better.
Inside, the Exora is huge. This isn’t a baby MPV in the slightest. Access is very good and the seats are arranged in a 2-3-2 formation, with a number of configurations available to suit different needs. The amount of glass also gives the car a light and airy feel – claustrophobia is not something you’ll suffer from in the Exora! The rearmost seats can be folded flat to provide extra storage if required, as can the middle row seats for that classic 2-seater MPV effect!
The rest of the interior is disappointing, not least because it looks like Proton hasn’t moved on at all in the last 20 years. The switchgear feels dated, the plastics are cheap and there’s no sense of comfort and security. Practicality and reliability aside, MPV buyers value a sense of security above anything else. Knowing your loved ones are as safe as possible as you head home from school or back from your family holiday is a critical factor. Sadly the Exora fails to deliver any sense of security or comfort. It just feels like the MPVs of yesteryear and a world away from the likes of the SEAT Alhambra.
But of course, Proton has a couple of trump cars to play, the most notable of which is the anticipated price for the Exora. The plan is to launch the car at £14,000 and you can almost guarantee that the Exora will come loaded with a host of toys as standard. What’s more, it’ll come with a five year Proton warranty and undoubtedly a choice of finance options. Buyers looking for a cheap, inoffensive and spacious MPV may find the Exora very appealing. Besides, not everyone is interested in performance, dynamics and soft-touch materials!
Proton hopes to sell 1,000 Exoras in 2012 and admits that it’s pinning its hopes on Motability customers to deliver most of these sales. On the evidence of the Malaysian-spec car I drove, it’s impossible to recommend the Exora. We just have to hope that the UK car is a huge improvement.
Fingers crossed for Proton that it is. The brand has high hopes for the next couple of years, with a Persona replacement arriving next year and a 5-door supermini launching in 2013. But we’ll have to wait until the back end of 2013 before we see any significant changes as that’s the anticipated launch of the EMAS hybrid cars. What’s more, Proton cars will finally be driven by a range of diesel engines. Hybrid and diesels are clearly the future for the brand.
If the Exora is anything to go by, the future can’t come soon enough for Proton.
Library images courtesy of Proton.