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Review: Proton Iriz 2019 1.6 Premium CVT, for the love of driving

  • It's an appealing driver's car
  • Significantly improved compared to the previous version
  • But how does it compare to the Myvi?

No one expected that when Perodua introduced the Perodua Myvi, it would be the default choice for young and old buyers alike. Since its introduction in 2005, more than 1 million units of the Myvi rolled off the production floors.

Proton is extremely late to the five-door hatchback game – I highlight five-door specifically because the national carmaker had a three-door Satria Neo hatchback. Only presenting its Myvi contender, the Proton Iriz in 2014 when our current Premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was then the Chairman of Proton.

Malaysians were sold on its looks and were equally impressed by its on-paper promises. Full 5 Stars ASEAN NCAP rating, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) as standard on all variants (in 2014!), Variable Valve Timing (VVT) and features that more than overfills the brochure.

Its sharp Proton Ride & Handling characteristics and the 1.6-litre 5-speed manual option also won over the hearts of many keen drivers. Sadly there is no longer a 1.6-litre manual option.

Unfortunately, the heat quickly died off and the Iriz never took off as told by its uninspiring sales figures. Complaints revolving around questionable build quality, jerky CVT automatic and poor fuel economy spread like wildfire, driving consumers to pick the safer option.

It’s been 5 years since the first Iriz was revealed to Malaysians and many things have changed. For starters, we’ve got a change of Government for the first time in 62 years, Crocs went out of fashion (were they ever in?) and 49.9% of Proton is now owned by Geely.

As Proton’s Foreign Strategic Partner, Geely has brought along their global standards and resources in design, technology, manufacturing and quality assurance. Inputs which the national carmaker sorely needs.

With the bar set as high as the Proton X70 – the first model to be born under the new alliance, many were left wondering, what’s going to happen to Proton’s existing models? The answer lies in the facelifted Proton Iriz 2019.

It is the first model to be updated in the new Proton-Geely era. Don’t be eager to pass this off as a nip and tuck exercise because it would be severely undermining all the efforts made. Proton has done over 367 improvements to the hatchback, promising a better driving response, fuel efficiency and connectivity.

No More Rattling

One of the first measures Geely implemented in Proton is their quality assurance standards. Ensuring every car that leaves Proton City in Tanjung Malim are matches up to Geely- and Volvo-made cars in terms of build quality.

I take their word for it because having sat in a pre-facelift and facelift model back-to-back, the difference in quality is night and day. There were discernible rattling coming from every corner of the pre-facelift car. When compounded, makes the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) frankly unbearable.

The panels on the new car are much, much better screwed together and no longer makes humming noise from the little vibrations. Top marks for Proton there.

However, that doesn’t take away the fact that the cabin refinement of the Iriz, while improved compared to before, is still not up to par with the competition. Cabin noise levels hover at 69 dB (typical noise levels of a sidewalk with cars passing by) at 60 km/h and get noisier as the speed goes up.

Better CVT but Not There Yet

Did you know that Geely also uses the Punch-sourced Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) in their models like the Emgrand GL? As a result, Proton and Geely engineers were able to exchange knowledge and work together to improve the calibration of the CVT automatic.

The effects of its improvements are immediately noticeable from the get-go as the transmission is quick to respond to your inputs off the line. It makes for a far more pleasant driving experience in the city.

Despite having 109 PS and 150 Nm, in-gear acceleration is still somewhat lacking with a very mild delay in power delivery. This effect is more noticeable with four adults in the car as the transmission takes a moment before kicking into a high rpm to deliver the torque which peaks at 4,000 rpm.

Another let down of the CVT is at a constant speed of 110 km/h, which is our national highway speed limit, the tachometer reads 3,000 rpm which is a tad higher than what you’d expect out of a CVT.

Compared to modern rivals, the Punch-sourced CVT automatic is by no means great. But credit must be given where due as Proton has made the transmission a whole lot more liveable compared to the previous versions.

“Hi Proton, What Can You Do For Me?”

The biggest talking point of the Iriz is the 7.0-inch GKUI (short for Geely Smart Ecosystem) touchscreen infotainment system.

Online connectivity (4G) is only available for this range-topping Premium variant which allows you to use “Hi Proton” intelligent voice command, navigate with Baidu Maps and stream online music.

Let’s put the connectivity features aside for a moment and first dissect the user interface of the infotainment system. The graphics on the display is crisp and operation is as smooth as a modern smartphone. Possibly the slickest touchscreen I’ve seen in the segment.

The online connectivity features were a novelty when it first came out and works for a very good showroom gimmick. But other than that, I don’t find myself using the navigation and music streaming all that much. The systems are adapted for local consumption, but they’re just not as intuitive to use as your usual Google Maps/Waze and Spotify.

The “Hi Proton” voice command while being first in class, is not as powerful as the one you find on the X70 which allows you to control the car’s main functions like the window operation or climate control. The Iriz gets a more basic and limited version of the voice command feature. But still a welcome addition, nonetheless.

Did Proton Address the Proton Iriz 2019’s Shortcomings?

Yes and no. The transmission is more responsive than ever but it’s still not up there with modern CVTs. Based on our internal test results, the Poton Iriz 2019 1.6 Premium CVT fared the real world 0 to 100 km/h sprint in a respectable 11.6 seconds.

More importantly, the 0 to 60 km/h times were consistent throughout the day at 5.1 seconds. This speaks volumes of the powertrain’s initial and low-end response. Decelerating from 100 km/h to 0 took 4.2 seconds.

The cabin although better build; is still fairly noisy inside with intrusions mainly coming from the engine bay. Data showed that the cabin recorded 69 dB at 60 km/h and escalated to 70 dB at 80 km/h. Interestingly it maintained around 70 dB even at 110 km/h.

Fuel economy is not great in the Iriz either. After 112.1 km (70% city; 30% highway), we’ve used 9.38 litres of fuel which translates to 8.36 L/100 km.

While Proton appears to be playing catch up, there’s no denying that they have invested heavily to give the 5-year-old product some new and improved gear to keep up with the competition.

But When It All Comes Together…

It’s a gem of a driver’s car. The Iriz really is a rewarding car to drive with its well-weighted steering, balanced chassis and superb suspension setup. Now with the well-built cabin together with the more responsive transmission just elevates the driving experience even further.

The ride and handling of the Iriz is right up there with the big names such as Volkswagen and Peugeot. It’s a car you can confidently throw around the corners yet offers an incredibly supple ride when going over undulations.

Think of it as the dynamism of a Mazda 2 but with the ride comfort of a Toyota Yaris. This confidence behind the wheel is something you will never get from a Perodua as their target audience mainly use their cars for city commute.

That’s not saying which is better over the other, but rather the Myvi and Iriz appeal to a very different group of consumers.

Conclusion

The internal project name for the Iriz was called GSC, short for Global Small Car and was originally planned to be co-developed with Lotus which was formerly a wholly-owned subsidiary of Proton. Clearly, Proton had big ambitions for the little hatchback.

It has world-class handling prowess and impressive crash safety standards, both of which are the cornerstone for a global car. Unfortunately, the Iriz did not quite pack the punch that Proton aspired it to have.

If you looked a little closer and dug a little deeper, you’ll find that the Proton Iriz 2019 is like an ore waiting for the right craftsman to uncover the gemstone underneath. Perhaps Geely was the craftsman the Iriz was waiting for.

At its price point (RM 36,700 to RM 50,700), the Proton Iriz 2019 is a highly attractive package for those who love and appreciate the fine art of driving. Never mind the Proton badge, never mind the noisy cabin, the joy it gives you behind the wheel is really something else.

This facelifted 2019 Proton Iriz, in my opinion, is what the car should’ve been when Proton launched it half a decade ago.