New Engines Boost Worthy Proton Persona

In the early days of Proton in Europe, the very thought of a diesel engine shoe-horned into one of those old MPi or Aerodeck models would have raised more than a chuckle or two. But now the reality of a 2-liter oil-burning motor powering the very worthy Proton Persona seems anything but comical.

The Persona has just taken on board a 2-liter indirect-injection Mitsubishi diesel engine, which, with its lack of turbocharger and intercooler, its mere eight valves and humble 47.7kW output, could certainly not be described as state-of-the art.

Lovers of a point-and-squirt driving style will definitely not find themselves smitten by this new model -- badged 2.0 SDi -- although we learned to quietly respect it after an afternoon's exhaustive test-drive.

The Persona wasn't designed around a diesel engine, and that's clear from the moment you fire up the new car, as the steering wheel shakes itself into a blur before you. Fortunately, it's the only part of the car to resonate annoyingly to the new motor. The cold-start clatter is above average, but does disappear as heat sets in -- something that the tickover-shake regrettably doesn't.

Apart from that, the old Mitsubishi proves to be a pretty smooth engine, and reasonably keen to rev. Pull-away in the Persona SDi is clean, thanks to a well damped clutch, but the Persona's gear change feels "murky" and imprecise next to the crisp action of gasoline-engined versions we're used to.

We soon found that if you're after a decent pace on the open road, you have to drive flat-to-the-boards, as the new car's pulling power is decidedly limited, even though the engine is flexible enough in itself. Round-town performance is adequate, but on the open road you learn to think twice about overtaking and you use revs and gear changes as if you were giving them away for free. Proton's uncompetitive claimed 0-to-100-kilometers-per-hour time of 18.5 seconds feels just about right, and apparently the 2.0 SDi will wheeze on up to 159 kilometers per hour, although we imagine it would take quite some time to do so.

The real trouble with this hard-worked driving style is that it makes for noisy engine operation. The Proton's progress is quite loud -- though it's a mellow rather than rattly sound. Rumor has it that a turbodiesel will eventually follow (maybe even this year), and we're keeping our fingers firmly crossed that it will, since we suspect sales of the SDi may prove disappointing.

Of course, fuel economy is the bottom line with any diesel variant, and with a quoted "extra urban" consumption of 5.8l/100 kilometers -- which relates quite well to "real" urban driving -- the Persona SDi should prove to be a very economical runabout.

The traditional Persona merits of fine ride, great handling and excellent power steering, together with great space, are, of course, present and unchanged, except that the SDi does feel just a touch more nose-heavy through bends -- testimony to the greater weight of the diesel engine.

The Persona's second new engine for 1996 -- a 85 kW, 1.8, 16-valve gasoline -- couldn't be more different from this oil burner. Complementing existing 1.5 and 1.6 liter gasoline units, this engine is incredibly flexible and simply bristling with mid-range torque. The long stroke of this unit provides more effortless cruising at higher speeds, while maximum torque of 157 Nm endows the new 1.8 SEi model with much greater overtaking punch than the previous top-of-the-range 1.6 model.

This revvy, coarse-sounding motor at last brings near-GTi performance -- and extra character -- to the very capable Persona chassis. A 10.5-second 0-to-100-kilometer-per-hour dash should please most drivers, as will the top speed potential of 192 kilometers per hour. Fuel consumption is down a little on the 1.6 Persona, at 7l/100 kilometers extra urban, against 6.4l/100 kilometers.

Proton has stiffened the suspension for this sporty model to make sure that the excellent performance is handled safely. In fact, the springing has been tightened to the extent that the SEi's ride is quite unyielding over broken surfaces, picking up on ridges and potholes, although it does smooth out admirably at speed, and is never really uncomfortable.

These two new Persona models announce styling, equipment and trim improvements across the whole range, along with the inclusion of a driver airbag, side-impact bars and power steering. Anti-lock brakes are now also fitted as standard to the 1.6- and 1.8-liter engined Personas.

The new revisions and engine options are likely to strengthen the Persona's appeal in the company car market, where Proton already has a small but loyal following among user-choosers who appreciate the reliability, build quality and exceptional value inherent in this manufacturer's products. If the diesel had a turbocharger from the start, we would have more optimistic market expectations of it.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.