Well, well, what a pleasant surprise! We knew the Proton Savvy was good, but our first drive in South Africa shows it's better than expected.
The Savvy, a new 5-door hatchback, was launched in Johannesburg yesterday, and after a varied ride and drive which took in lots of twists and turns as well as hills and motorway, we found it handles and rides as good as, if not better than, anything else in its class.
And its 1.2-litre Renault motor gives it more than enough grunt to keep up with the hectic Jo'burg drivers despite altitude power loss.
The best thing, however, is the funky - and spunky - styling on the car.
When we saw it in Malaysia last year we were impressed. But it's only when you get a car onto home turf that you can get your real bearings.
My feeling: this car is heading for big things.
The car comes out in two body packages, standard and sport, and is available with either a 5-spped manual gearbox or a 5-speed A/MT (Assisted Manual Transmission) which performs as either a clutches sequential manual or automatic.
Auto box in May
However, the A/MT 'box won't be available until May.
The Savvy was named after a nation-wide competition in Malaysia, and "savvy" is the English slang for "street wise" - an apt name for the car.
Clean lines and a strong masculine front on the Proton Savvy
For with lots of Lotus Design expertise in its styling and chassis, the car is more than a match for its competition, with neat styling that's best described as masculine and chunky.
Up front the grille is shield-shaped, like its bigger sibling the Gen-2. From the top the bonnet has strongly-rounded edges, with prominent indicators and big headlamps.
The side view sees the driver's door window dipping right down to the belt line for better vision, while the rear windows have a kick-up effect.
At the back there's a big rear window, with wiper/wash, with the lower part of the hatchback door having a V-shaped shield containing the very attractive Proton tiger badge.
There are big tail-lights and a prominent centrally-placed chromed tail-pipe.
Inside, too, the accent is on sportiness, with neat and stylish trim. The instruments are contained in a binnacle directly in front of the driver, and have a chronometer look with white and yellow backgrounds.
Instruments comprise a speedo and revcounter flanking vertical digital gauges for water temperature and fuel.
There's a sporty three-spoke soft-rim steering wheel with an aluminium-look centre bezel, and this look is carried across to the gearlever surround.
A strong vertical stack contains aircon and heating controls, while there's a neat built-in radio/front loader CD as standard, too.
The seats are adjustable for reach and tilt, and have strong sideways support, while the rear seat folds and flops in a 50/50split to increase loadability.
A plus point is that the back of the rear seat is strengthened to prevent luggage or other loads injuring rear seat passengers in an accident.
Plenty of space
Interior space is much better than expected, and I sat quite comfortably in the back of the car on my journey from lunch to the airport. There's easily room for four adults in this car.
As mentioned all cars get a 1.2-litre 16-valve engine and 5-speed gearbox courtesy Renault, and the spunky little unit produces 55 kW at 5 500 r/min and 105 Nm at 4 350 r/min to give a top speed of 170 km/h and the zero to 100 km/h dash in 12.6 seconds (A/MT 14.5 seconds).
Proton claims average fuel consumption in the region of 5.3 litres/100 km.
I found the engine quite flexible, although at the Reef altitude it was sometimes necessary to rev it a bit, and the gearbox on our car was crisp and positive.
At the coast I would expect it to be a real flyer.
The big bonus, though, is in terms of ride and handling.
Small cars often (usually?) have to make compromises to get good handling, and that's by sacrificing ride quality.
Ride and handling
However intervention from Proton subsidiary Lotus has ensured the Savvy gets good ride AND handling.
We went over some quite disgusting roads (the R511 to Hartbeestpoort being one) quite quickly, and not once did the car get thrown off line by the bumps, or feel at any time over-stressed or on the edge.
On smooth roads we know from our testing in Malaysia that handling is quite neutral, but the local experience enhanced our opinion of the car.
The Savvy Sport looks good from the rear
Suspension sees MacPherson struts and an antiroll bar at the front, with a torsion beam rear axle.
Although the engine can be a bit boomy at higher revs, the same could not be said for road and wind noise, and Proton (Lotus?) has done an excellent job of ensuring low NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), again well up among the best in class.
The Savvy gets hydraulic power assisted rack and pinion steering, and this proves to be quite crisp and positive, with none of the vagueness often associated with electric steering.
And then we get to the feature list.
Let's start with something no other car in its class gets as standard: reversing sensors, a huge boon when parking.
Then there's air-con, electric front windows, CD/radio with four speakers, remote central locking (by transponder key for better security), front and rear fog lamps, electrical recharge socket, height adjustable driver's seat, driver's footrest, luggage net, and manual remote mirrors.
The whole car is painted in body colour, bumpers included, and five different colours are available.
Add to all that 15 inch alloy wheels shod with 175/50 x R15 tyres, ABS with EBD, dual front airbags, and extra strengthening in the doors for side impact, and it becomes an even safer and more attractive package.
And if you want your Proton to look even better you can specify the Sport which comes with a really attractive body kit which comprises a deeper front valance, side sills, and a rear deck-top spoiler.
The Sport also gets a 2 year/45 000 km maintenance package as standard.
Service intervals are 15 000 km, there's a 3 year/100 000 km warranty, and 3 years roadside assistance.
Proton boss Albert Venter is cagey about how many Protons he's going to sell this year, although he was proud to announce there are currently 19 Proton dealers nation-wide. This will increase to 29 by June and between 35v and 40 by December, to give good coverage in all the main areas.
Later, he admitted that his original target had been 150 cars a month, but dealers had convinced him this should be raised two, or even four-fold.
"Only time will tell," he told me. "We are dealing with a new brand, after all.
"However, the car represents really good value for money, with great features, so we expect it to do well".
Proton Savvy 1.2 manual R99 995
Proton Savvy 1.2 A/MT R112 995
Proton Savvy 1.2 Sport R109 995
Proton Savvy 1.2 Sport A/MT R122 995.