Ambitious Proton returns with a point to prove

Having caused an unexpected sensation after announcing its return to South Africa in April following a twelve-year hiatus, Malaysian automaker, Proton, has indicated that its market re-launch is a permanent one with no lasting plans to depart anytime soon.

On Wednesday, the marque officially reintroduced itself as a maker of “affordable luxury” vehicles headlined by two SUVs, the X50 and X70, with three additional models, two sedans and a third SUV, confirmed for unveiling sometime before the end of 2023.

Proton back in South Africa with X50 and X70
Pictured top-spec Premium rides as standard on 18-inch alloy wheels

Its return coming five years after Chinese automaker, Geely, obtained a 49.9% share, Proton’s International Director of Sales, Steven Xu, said the brand had learned a lot from its initial foray into South Africa that lasted from 2005 to 2012, with sales of 5 295 units.

According to Xu, Proton’s decision to go it alone without any local assistance, supply chain constraints, lack of sources and models eventually left it with no choice but to leave.

ALSO READ: Proton X50 and X70 features list revealed

“Ever the since the joint venture with Geely, we have spent a lot of time and effort into upgrading our factory in Malaysia. Today, after a $500-million investment, the Proton Plant in Tanjung Malim is recognised as one of the best in South-East Asia,” Xu said.

“Today, we are back in South Africa. And we are ready. We are going to provide an exception luxury experience to our customers, based on the standards set-out by Geely.”

Proton back in South Africa with X50 and X70
Steering wheel has a distinct Skoda look, but the rest is all unique to the X50

Aside from the Geely ownership, whose line-up of models include Volvo and Lotus, Proton’s reappearance also comes by the way of Combined Motor Holdings (CMA) CEO Jebb McIntosh’s identification of the brand as filling a vital space currently not occupied.

“Luxury brands have become so unaffordable for the majority of South Africans. The purchase of the stake by Geely has transformed Proton. When the brand became available, we jumped at the opportunity for several reasons, but mostly, we saw a gap in the market for a quality SUV within an affordable price bracket,” McIntosh said.

Proton back in South Africa with X50 and X70
Two-tone black-and-red leatherette seats are supportive and look fantastic.

At the same time, Proton’s Managing Director for Sales, Michael Snodgrass, said the brand won’t be competing with or serving as an alternative to Chinese rivals Haval and Chery, but rather as a competitor for comparative models from among others, Volkswagen and Mazda.

As it is known by now, both the Proton X50 and X70 are rebadged, right-hand-drive versions of existing Geely models, namely the Binyue and Boyue, with both being based on Geely specific platforms.

Proton back in South Africa with X70 and X50
X70 will top Proton’s model line-up for the time being.

The opposite is to be found underneath the bonnet though, where both employ the 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine Volvo uses in entry-level as well as plug-in hybrid versions of the XC40.

In the X50, the unit comes in two states of tune; 110kW/226Nm and, in models bearing the T-GDI designation, 130kW/255Nm. For the X70, which benefited from a facelift in Malaysia earlier this year before being confirmed for South Africa, only the latter unit can be had.

Proton back in South Africa with X70 and X50
Top-spec Premium gets 19-inch alloy wheels and an assortment of safety and driver assistance systems.

Regardless of output, the sole transmission option on both models is a seven-speed dual-clutch with drive going to the front wheels or all four in the case of the X70.

The brief taste of both models at the national launch in Magaliesburg swung mostly in favour of the X50, which felt sure-footed and with considerable amounts of go from an eager feeling engine, devoid of the usual three-cylinder thrum.

Proton back in South Africa with X70 and X50
As part of the standard specification sheet, the Premium boasts a nine-speaker Kenwood sound system.

For its part, the X70, which until its facelift made do with a 1.8-litre turbocharged unit, verged more on the comfort than the sporty, but still felt reasonably brisk considering its mass.

Space wasn’t found lacking in either model and while ride comfort and steering feel impressed, some of the materials felt a bit less sorted with braking performance, especially in the X70, being somewhat worrisome.

Proton back in South Africa with X70 and X50
Brown Nappa leather seats and plush and the interior neat despite a few cheap feeling materials.

The general consensus though is that Proton has done its homework as both the X50 and X70, regardless of trim level, are packed to the hilt with features either not offered or optional on its intended rivals.

Along with the CMA backing, each X50 and X70’s sticker price includes a five-year/unlimited km warranty as well as a five-year/80 000 km service plan.

Conclusion

Despite its ambition, perceptions will take a while, and even struggle, to think of Proton as a serious alternative to the likes of Volkswagen and Mazda rather than Chery or Haval.

What is certain though is that both the X50 and X70 have served notice not only of their intentions, but also Proton being more than ready to write a new chapter in more ways than one.

Price

X50

  • X50 1.5T Standard DCT – R449 900
  • X50 1.5T Luxury DCT – R499 900
  • X50 1.5T Executive DCT – R535 900
  • X50 1.5 T-GDI Premium DCT – R579 900

X70

  • X70 1.5 T-GDI Standard DCT – R529 900
  • X70 1.5 T-GDI Executive DCT – R579 900
  • X70 1.5 T-GDI Executive AWD DCT – R629 900
  • X70 1.5 T-GDI Premium DCT – R639 900
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