12:00 AM, July 25, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 05:13 PM, July 29, 2018

2018 Proton Saga

Photo: Rahin Sadman Islam

Back in the late 90s and early 00s, government pool cars meant only two models—locally assembled Mitsubishi Pajero SUVs built by state-run Progoti, or the three-box Proton Saga, both finished in the kind of flat, milky paint that would make new car buyers avoid white for the rest of their lives. Both these cars are solidly intertwined in our nation's history—they ferried around government officials and servicemen for nearly a decade before being phased out and replaced with newer models of these cars.

While the Pajero was certainly more popular and deservingly so, the Saga was a more “interesting” car for anyone with the slightest inclination towards odd and quirky cars. This first generation Saga, based on the Mitsubishi Lancer from the late 80s, had squishy soft suspension that made it roll around even in the slightest of bends, wheezy 1.3 litre motors that had a surprising amount of torque, and a proclivity for swaying back and forth if you pressed the middle pedal a bit too hard. It certainly wasn't a good car in any way—but it got the job done with a fair degree of reliability. The subsequent generations were more of the same.

From 2016 on, the Saga was thoroughly revamped through the introduction of a new platform, engines, styling and interior treatment. Assembled through CKDs by PHP Automobiles at a dedicated factory in Chittagong, this new Proton is much updated and a far cry from the three box that made the original Saga a fairly iconic shape. 

Once you're inside, you start noticing a couple of things that can make you go either way with your opinion. Unlike every other new car on the planet, the Saga's dash is a low slung, spartan affair. Unlike the bloated dashboards of other cars, which try to cram as much equipment into their bloated forms as possible, the Saga's dash slopes down onto a thin centre console housing the basic air-con and radio controls in a nostalgic layout. Anyone who feels the late 90s were the height of interior ergonomics (myself included) will feel right at home. Oh, and if you expect anything other than hard plastics and cloth, you're snooping around in the wrong segment.

On the move, the 1.3 litre VVT 4 cylinder hiding under the Saga's bulbous hood feels a little sluggish in the low end of the rev range, with not much power at the top either. With 94 HP @5750 RPM and 88lb-ft of torque@4000 RPM routed through a drone-y CVT gearbox, that shouldn't be surprising (the CVT equipped Saga reaches 100 km/h in 13.1 seconds, the manual does it in 12.2– yikes!). What is actually surprising is the zippiness of the handling—while the steering is generally uncommunicative at low speeds, it tightens up quite nicely as you press on, with the skinny tyres allowing you to change direction in near-split seconds. In its own way, the Saga is quite reminiscent of a late 80s hot hatch—underpowered, but provides boatloads of handling fun. If provoked enough, the Saga can resemble a happy little dog as it takes corners on three wheels, a single rear wheel skipping in the air as the zippy little Proton bounds around the curve.

The visibility is fantastic, the comfort less so. The damping is standard for cars of this grade, and the road noise and engine noise streaming into the cabin is an issue that can only be solved by buying something more expensive. The cloth seats provide good support but are thinly padded, so you won't be as cushioned as you might be in a Suzuki Swift or the Hyundai Xcent. However, the Saga is a significantly better looking car than either of those, so there's that. There's subtle bulges along the hood and roof, with smartly creased sides that reduce the visual height of this otherwise tall economy car. In black it looks composed and dignified compared to its hatchbacks-with-tacked-on-butts rivals; in bright colours it looks playful and fun. If nothing else, Proton got the styling perfectly right.

It doesn't have any standout equipment to talk about. The Saga is basic, utilitarian motoring for people with a budget and not much requirement other than going from point A to B. It doesn't offer much in terms of spirited driving, but it still provides cheap thrills thanks to its lively handling, which can honestly be described as one of the best in the segment. It's decidedly old school in every department, but at the end of the day it's an honest attempt at economy motoring that is largely free of gimmicks, and it must be applauded for that. More importantly, it's a sign of how Proton is moving on, and Bangladesh with it.

SPECS

Engine: 1300cc VVT petrol 4-cylinder, 94 HP and 88 lb-ft torque.

Gearbox: CVT, front wheel drive.

Features and options: 185/55 tyres with 15-inch alloy wheels, ventilated disc brakes front and drums rear,

multi-function adjustable steering wheel, automatic

air-conditioning, 6 cup holders, parking sensors with mirror mounted rearview camera, CD/AM/FM/MP3/Bluetooth/Ipod Double DIN entertainment system, front and rear USB

charging, dual airbags, ABS/EBD/ESC/TC/BA, first-aid kit.

Price: 18,50,000 Taka.

For details, contact PHP Automobiles Ltd.