Charting Proton’s progress: Waja vs Exora

Charting Proton’s progress: Waja vs Exora

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The Waja was the first car Proton designed on their own. The Exora is their latest. KON puts both together to evaluate the national car maker’s progress.

When Proton launched the Waja in year 2000, they launched it amidst a sea of grandiose promises. Despite it being the first car they designed from ground-up, Proton had the audacity of claiming the Waja to be first of their products which can compete on a level-playing field. It was to be a car with performance, quality and refinement at levels previously not achieved by Proton. It went wrong. Horribly wrong.

Although the Waja has turned out to be a commercial success, early batches were ridden by a mountain of quality problems, all well-documented in our forums. The famous double-pulley power windows, said to be of a new and robust design which would make power window failure a thing firmly of Proton’s past, failed anyway and were horrendously expensive to replace as the modular assembly approach also meant that customers had to change the entire mechanism even if one tiny bracket broke. Door handles too were the other notorious components, as were the fuel pump and leaking rear shocks.

Its interior was also poorly built and designed, as reflected by the use of cheap materials and the long list of amateur mistakes in its cabin ergonomics. It looked good, but that was it. The arrivals of the Vios and City in 2003 showed that there was no way the Waja would have survived without help, as the two entry level Japanese compacts chewed off a huge slice of its market.

For all its faults, the Waja did have its virtues though. Its interior was comparatively spacious, and well-equipped, that is until all the equipment fell apart. Its Lotus-tuned ride & handling, endowed the Waja with driving dynamics better than many cars twice its price. It was the only point on which the Waja could compete on a level playing field and win convincingly.

Make no mistake, the Waja was actually a good first effort from Proton, if only they did not promise the sun and the moon. They had raised expectations to levels far higher than they could handle. The result is customer disappointment. Though each succeeding batch of the Waja came with better quality than the one preceding it, the damage has been done. Proton’s reputation were left in tatters.

A good car, but with serious flaws.

The appointment of Datuk Syed Zainal at the helm sent the company in a new direction. After the preceeding management’s folly in introducing three successive hatchback models, which did not quite meet the needs of the Malaysians, DSZ engineered a credible turnaround with the introductions of two three-box sedans which we know to be the Persona and the Saga.

Although both the Persona and Saga have done a great deal to stem the tide in their decline, the cornerstone of Proton’s revival lies squarely in the performance of the new MPV, Exora, launched earlier this year. Like the Waja, the Exora was also launched to a massive public and media fanfare. Spyshots flooded the internet in the months preceding its unveiling. The parallels couldn’t be more similar, as the Exora is also being touted as the best car Proton has ever produced, with improved quality, refinement and practicality.

But refreshingly, unlike the Waja, Proton is making no pretentions that the Exora is a premium product of any kind. The words coming out of the management were of a humbler variety. As DSZ correctly observed during the launching ceremony of the Exora, the Malaysian public expects “German engineering, Japanese quality and Malaysian prices” from Proton. However badly they have been screwing up, expectations from the public remains high.

Shortly after its launch in April, almost every magazine in our bookstores have featured test drive reports of the Exora. From Autoworld, both YS and SBY have taken the Exora out for a spin and have given their thoughts on the car. So, now that my turn to have a go in it has come a little late, I felt the need to produce something different. I brought in the Waja.

Now, before you lambast me for doing such a ridiculous apple-to-orange comparison test, let me explain to you the reasoning behind this shootout. This test is not to find out which is the better car. Its importance is far greater than that. It is to find out if Proton have become better makers of a car. We want to know if Proton has learned from the mistakes it has made in Waja. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the most significant test drive in all of Proton’s history. This is Proton’s report card.

Proton’s hopes rest on the Exora

Introducing the test cars

So, let’s bring in the contenders. Representing the Exora is a demo car loaned to us by Proton. It is kitted in H-Line spec, which costs RM75,998 (OTR Peninsula), coming with dual airbags, ABS, EBD, DVD player, cruise control, and GPS navigation system. Its radio & CD player also supports MP3, WMA and Bluetooth handsfee applications. Propulsion comes in the form of Proton’s top-of-the-line Campro CPS powerplant churning 125hp of power and 150Nm of torque, which is the standard powerplant for all variants the Exora, and the one that should have went into the Waja since its launch.

But it didn’t. The Campro could not be made ready for mass production in time for the Waja’s scheduled launch, so Proton had to make do with the 1.6-litre 4G18 engine from Mitsubishi in order to meet their deadline. Our test car, a 2005 unit, is still powered by this engine. It cost RM65,356.97 brand new, and came with far fewer toys than the Exora. It has two airbags and four disc brakes, but no ABS or electronic wizardry of any kind.

The only component in common for both cars is the Mitsubishi F4A42 four-speed INVECS-II automatic transmission. However, as we would discover in our test drive, Proton programmed the transmission very differently for both cars.

Though it has since aged, the Waja’s boxy shape was well-received during launch. The front rectangular headlights and bumper mounted signals resembles the first generation Proton Sagas, with an Alfa Romeo reference thrown-in in the form of the triangular beak of its bonnet. More European references come in the form of its Audi-mimicking window frames, and Mercedes-aping bootlid-mounted third brake light.

The Exora is a pleasant looking car too. I particularly like the matt black window frame finish giving the illusion of the roof resembling a giant surfboard. The front fascia seems to have been, and you’re free to question me on this, derived from the previous generation Honda Accord. At the rear, Proton played it safe with very simple and inoffensive lines, giving the Exora a very clean, but unremarkable look. The only complaint of the aesthetics are the 15″ five-spoke alloys which make the Exora look badly under-tyred. Though, after test driving it, I have a sneaking suspicion that 16″ rims for this car would be a bad idea.

Round 1 – Interior

As we move into the interior, here is where the real comparison begins. Besides quality issues, the Waja’s cabin is known to contain a host of ergonomic errors that impeded its user-friendliness. Our 2005 test car actually has most of the quality issues of earlier batches resolved, but because the design is unchanged, the poor ergonomics are carried over. What errors, you may ask? Here goes: the power window switches are placed too far back, requiring contortions of your arm to operate. The plastic piece covering the instrument panel gives irritating reflections that hinder your reading of the meters. The A-pillars are too thick and placed exactly between your eyes and the apex of the next corner, and don’t get me started on the air-con blowers.

So, question 1, has Proton repeated those mistakes in the Exora? Thankfully, the answer is no to all. The power window switches might have been lifted from the Persona, but they are properly placed. The instruments no longer gives irritating reflections, and the A-pillars are better positioned now, as I no longer need to lean forward to get a good view when coming out of junctions.

Instrument panel no longer features irritating reflections like the Waja’s

Compared to the Waja, quality and user-friendliness of the Exora’s interior has indeed improved by leaps and bounds. Where the Waja’s interior was designed with aesthetics in mind without consideration for practicality, the Exora’s one is simply much better thought of and laid out. Deserving of praise are the rear seats, which fold much better than even the Honda CR-V costing twice as much.

Exora scores maximum points with its rear seats.

It’s not without fault though. The overall quality can still be improved. The dashboard felt hollow, and the slats on the air-con vents look like they can break at anytime. As mentioned earlier, our H-Line test with GPS, DVD, and Bluetooth handsfree built-in. I put them to the test, and with the exception of the hopeless GPS, the other two worked beautifully. Well, once you could get them to work, that is.

The Bluetooth unit, integrated to the Clarion HU allowed for clear and effortless phone conversations. It did fail me once, with the speech of neither side getting through to the other. I was not the least bit amused as I was getting a call from the boss! However, when it worked, I was even able to carry out a conversation while sitting in the middle row.

I tested the built-in DVD player with an original copy of the old sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, and I’m pleased to report that it was able to provide us with cinema quality audio and visual. Unfortunately, the delivery of the audio part is a little messed up. Instead of being properly integrated with the speakers, the player broadcasts the audio signals via a built-in FM modulator, and you then tune the radio to receive the broadcast.

Exora’s DVD player can provide a cinematic experience. After you set it up.

My question to Proton is this, having already decided to equip the Exora with all these features, why aren’t the GPS, DVD player, and audio HU all properly integrated? I would imagine that sourcing a single integrated unit would cost substantially cheaper than sourcing each separately, which makes the car look cheap. That aside, I have little complaints on the interior, so Proton has passed the first test.

Round 2 – Performance

After road testing both cars, I’m sad to say that neither the Waja nor Exora emerges from this with full credit. Though both ride and handle well, thanks to the Lotus inputs, they are also let down by very inadequate powertrains. Let’s start with the Waja. Its 1,584cc four-cylinder 16-valve SOHC powerplant produces 103hp @ 6,000rpm and 140Nm @ 2,750rpm. This engine is noted for its robustness and unexpectedly excellent fuel economy. I can testify that even with an auto transmission, this test car has similar consumption figures to my manual Waja Campro. What it sorely lacks is refinement.

The 4G18 provides adequate shove for moderate town driving, but shows all its flaws on full throttle. As you floor the accelerator, the transmission kicks down, and the revs build up quickly, but you notice that the speedo does not rise in tandem with its tacho. The hesitant pick-up spoils all the fun, as it lets down a perfectly set-up and balanced chassis. The Waja is very composed at high speeds, but it would take you a while to reach there.

Browsing through the forums, I noticed much criticism has been leveled against the Waja’s INVECS-II 4A/T, for its propensity to downshift too eagerly. I personally like it, as without such an aggressive characteristic, the 4G18’s lack of shove would be even more apparent. I also like its ability to sense gradients and downshift in response, though I know some of our forummers don’t share my views here again.

Now, if you didn’t like that characteristic of the Waja, you would hate the Exora. We all know that the 125hp and 150Nm produced by the Campro CPS is not sufficient to pull the Exora’s portly 1,442kg. So, Proton’s fix for this was simply to make the auto gearbox even more aggressive, fully utilizing the Campro’s high-rev tendencies compensate its lack of torque. The result? Well, if you so much as tickle the accelerator pedal, the transmission downshifts not one, but two ratios, while the CPS engine hurls itself past 5,000rpm. It gets the Exora moving, but at a serious cost of refinement.

This trigger-happy transmission and throttle mapping is fine for a sports car, but used in an MPV, it makes sedate and serene progress a tricky business. From standstill, a light depression on the accelerator practically teleports the tachometer from idle to 1,750rpm, and it surges all the way to (at least) 4,000rpm before upshifting. Like the Waja, the Exora is very composed at high speeds. It’s NVH when cruising is noticeably better, but the slightest movements of your right foot is quickly registered on the tacho, and the booming sound from the Campro CPS engine then rings around the cabin again.

The outcome of the second test is a bare pass for Proton. No doubt that they are making the best out of what they have to give the Exora decent get-up-and-go, but it has made the car almost impossible to drive smoothly. Even if it might make the Exora more sluggish, Proton needs to tone down the trigger-happy character of its throttle. This is a family car, after all.

Both cars let down by engines. One lacks urge, the other has too much. (Note: urge, not power)

Round 3 – Ride and Handling

I have always maintained that one of the best things that Proton have done for themselves was the acquisition of Lotus, even though at one point it gave them the arrogance to think that they can match the driving dynamics of a BMW. They might be a little far from those ideals, but all Protons launched since the Waja have been endowed with driving dynamics that are above class average.

Indeed, despite being bogged down by substandard parts, the Waja is built on a chassis of world-class design. At high speeds, it remains stable and planted. Only the noise intrusions clue you in when you are doing high speeds. The Exora does well on the straights too, being almost as stable and as planted, but having much better noise suppression. You can’t carry out a conversation in a Waja past 110kph, but you can in an Exora, just don’t trigger another kickdown.

The biggest joys when driving a Waja are had in long sweeping bends and corners. Its steering weight is beautifully judged, inspiring your confidence to corner it hard. Running on 55-series tyres with all-round independent suspension, the Waja corners with minimal body roll, but at the slight expense of comfort as even slight undulations and imperfections can be felt in the cabin. This is a side note, but I know from personal experience that the 4G18 versions of the Waja are harder sprung than the later Campro versions.

Being an MPV, we definitely would not expect the Exora to corner any better than the Waja, despite being (in terms of design) nine years newer. No surprises, it wasn’t, but not by much. Even with more millimetres to its height, 65-series tyres and torsion beam rear suspension, the Exora grips amazingly well at corners. I was also particularly impressed at how well suppressed bodyroll was. Although it can’t corner as hard as the Waja, its suspension setup has a better compromise between ride quality and handling sharpness.

Waja can still corner harder than Exora, but not by much.

Surprisingly, what killed the fun driving the Exora was not its height, but its steering. As mentioned earlier, the Exora has the weight of an aircraft carrier. Its sluggish acceleration reflects that, but the weight of its steering does not. Surprisingly for a Proton, the Exora’s steering was way too light and over-assisted. As a result, you are never confident of pushing this car at corners, which is, once again, such a waste, because this car can corner very well.

Here is another pass for Proton, but it could have been so much better had they properly weighted the steering up. No doubt this was probably done to make it easy to drive in the city, but such over-assistance robs confidence and prevented Proton from scoring a distinction.

The Final Say

Although the Waja and the Exora are two distinctly different products, this comparison was still sufficiently fruitful in evaluating Proton’s progress as a carmaker.

With the Waja, Proton actually produced a decent and capable car. It was a car with plenty of potential, but out of sheer arrogance, Proton over-promised what it can deliver, leading to massive disappointment. After all the grandiose claims, Proton made schoolboy errors and settled for substandard quality which ultimately undermined themselves.

They have evidently learned their lessons with Exora. The amateurish mistakes that plagued the Waja, and even the Gen.2 after it, have mostly been corrected. A look at the Exora’s interior shows that far more thought has been put into it rather than just approving the nicest looking sketch, which might have been the case with the Waja.

Proton made mistakes with the Waja, but they seemed to have learned their lessons with the Exora.

The Exora is not perfect yet, for we found that it still has bugs to iron out. It lost plenty of marks with its engine, steering and entertainment system. Our verdict on it is that it is a good effort, but we believe Proton can do better.

Our verdict on Proton? Improved, but not there yet. Though now there’s hope.



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