Discounting poor pick-up and minor lapses, there's a lot going for Waja, a Proton with promise
This is going to be a good bet - at the right price Proton Waja

FROM Kuala Lumpur to Bukit Tinggi, through mountainous and curvaceous conditions, I feel confident and am enjoying myself, leaning hard on every sweeper that comes along and slaying all sorts of bends that get into my way.

There is fluidity and slickness to the chassis, and a refined compliance when the road is bumpy. Lots of grip, too, and plenty of reassuring neutrality in most cornering circumstances. Joy.

And what am I in? Some sweet-handling Peugeot or perhaps a well-balanced BMW?

I happen to be sitting, actually, in the driver's seat of a Waja, the all-new compact sedan from Proton.

Surprising? Yes, but not quite heart-stoppingly so. The Perdana V6 and Satria GTi have already accustomed me to fine-handling Protons.

Those cars, like the new Waja, bear the stamp of Lotus Engineering's involvement. The gurus from Hethel, where the company is based, have sorted the handling package on every Waja, and not only the premium versions.

My test car was an entry-level model. A single-cam 1.6-litre engine, based on a Mitsubishi unit, lurks under the bonnet.

In this guise, the Waja's performance is sufficient for everyday driving. Of course, with only 100 bhp to haul it around, there are times when you do wish for a significant increase in oomph.

Momentum is the key to an enjoyable drive. Get caught behind a lorry load of cattle and you will curse the lack of overtaking power. What you get when pushing it hard is a jarring noise accompanied with subtle vibrations and lazy progress.

The gearing is partly to blame, the ratios being too far apart between the third and fourth gears in the four-speed auto. The five-speed manual is more ideal for control freaks like me, although it would still be nicer if the gears were stacked a little closer.

The seats are a tad small and short on support and cushioning, so large-framed drivers are likely to feel uncomfortable and long distance journeys may become more taxing than usual.

Rear passengers, however, should be better off slightly, unless they are three large adults.

Otherwise cabin roominess is excellent in all directions, with a mammoth boot in the back.

Aside from a steering wheel that does not adjust widely enough for height, the ergonomics are flawless. The overall presentation is likeable, with sporty touches like the silver-toned panels and gear knob, and small-radius wheel.

Upon closer inspection, you will find the occasional lapse in quality. The plastic seems to be cheaper than those found in some of the existing Protons. The push-buttons are pretty iffy and the air-con dials resemble those of the 1980s Mitsubishis.

There were panels in my test car that had come loose.

An entry-level Waja has no ABS, airbags, painted side mirrors or leather upholstery, but comes with 15-inch alloys, electric-powered windows and mirrors, and 2-DIN cassette player with four speakers.

There will be two gearbox options and a higher trim level to choose from, while the range-topping 1.8-litre will not be available till mid-2001.

For Singapore, the Waja launch is slotted for the end of this month or early November. The car is expected to cost about $80,000 with COE.

Whether the Waja's future will be bright depends mostly on whether Proton gets the pricing right.

If the going gets winding or bumpy, at least the Waja's fine chassis gives it a major edge.

FAST FACTS

Proton Waja 1.6

Price: To be announced

Engine: 1,584 cc, 16 valve in-line four

Maximum power: 100 bhp at 6,000 rpm

Maximum torque: 140 Nm at 2,750 rpm

0 - 100 kmh: 12.0 sec (manual); 14.7 sec (auto)

Top speed: 186 kmh (manual); 181 kmh (auto)

For enquiries: Call C & C Proton on 565-1833