Writing about a Proton is never easy as it’s a topic of national interest, writing about a brand new Proton, now that’s even harder. I had this article running through my head for all of one week since I received the invitation to test the new Proton Inspira, and I’m still lost for words. Not because of the car, but to convince all you Proton-haters, bashers and flame throwers that rebadging the Inspira is actually a good idea.

Now to a regular person rebadging may seem like a bad move, after all, Proton already has 25 years of experience in building and assembling cars, they should already be able to build cars like the Lancer on their own. I was told that they can and have done so with the new Inspira being locally built by Proton’s own engineers, and contrary to popular belief, there is not going to be any CBU version of the Inspira, so the new Proton really is a home grown delight with a tinge of Japanese-engineering to it.

Yes, the Proton team is trained by Mitsubishi on how to build the Inspira, in fact a number of ex-Mitsubishi personnel are now working with Proton on the Inspira and future projects. So in actual fact, the Inspira is not just a rebadge program, its part of a grand master plan to take Proton up to an entirely new level. Think about it, the Inspira has already set quite a high standard for a Proton; every other model that will come next has to be equivalent in every aspect if not better. A shot in the foot? I don’t think so; it’s more of an inspired idea to introduce Proton as a force to be reckoned with, and it all starts with the Inspira.

We recently had a Q & A session with Proton MD Dato’ Syed Zainal on the rationale of rebadging, or an OEM Collaboration as he prefers to call it, and the idea behind it all ultimately boils down to dollars and cents.
The Research and Development cost to develop a new car is well over RM700 million, apparently the development of the Waja cost somewhere around that region. But development of the Inspira however cost just RM250million. That’s about RM500million cheaper to build a car that is leaps and bounds better than the Waja! How does that not make sense?

We also know that Proton is currently working on developing at least three new models, and with all that money saved and the knowledge gained from Mitsubishi, rest assured we’ll be getting some pretty decent cars from Proton in the near future.

Rebadging is also widely practiced by a number of large car manufacturers around the world. The Australian Holden is basically a rebadged Ford or Chevy, the Chevrolet Cruze of Malaysia is known as the Holden Cruze, a perfect example of a similar rebadged program but the Aussie’s swear by their national brand and stick to it with great pride. Chrysler, Skoda, Seat, and many other marque’s also share their badge with no repercussions whatsoever, no parliamentary debate, no public outcry, no such drama at all, because the idea makes sense, any idea that saves money and time makes sense. And with the Inspira buyers are getting a good car for cheap, as I found out once I stepped behind the wheel.

Many think that the Inspira is the replacement for the dated Waja, but according to Proton it is not a replacement for it but more of placement model to fill in a gap in the market created when the production of the Waja ends at the end of this year.

There is an embargo forbidding us from releasing full images of the Inspira but all you have to do is take a look at a Mitsubishi Lancer and you would have set your eyes on the new Proton. There are a number of visual differences though, the grille of the Inspira is just an upside down version of the Lancer’s, the rims and bumpers are of a different design. Other than that, the only major difference lays inside and under the body work.

Available for test drive that day were the three models that are available for booking now – the 1.8 manual, the 1.8 CVT auto, and the range topping 2-liter CVT with paddle shift, all powered by a MIVEC powerplant. I went for the cheaper and more fun 1.8 manual for obvious reasons.

Different seat fabric design, steering wheel, and audio unit differentiate the interior of the Inspira from the Lancer. Other than that the ride feels great and like no other Proton before, not even the once upon a time Proton flag bearer, the Perdana. The ambiance oozes value for money though the dashboard is a little too bland, but the gear shifts and ride quality more than make up for the lack of thought that went into the dash.

I honestly am impressed with the manual transmission of the Inspira, the clutch is light and the biting point predictable, the shifts have a good soft nudge to it and the build in power from the 1.8-liter MIVEC engine (there’s no CPS engine for the Inspira) provides adequate power at all RPM levels, as long as you’re in the right gear.

On highway speeds, the Inspira is able to cruise at speeds of up to 180km/h without any drama but some very audible wind noise, however unless you’re looking at buying a brand new Mercedes for RM80,000, which you’re not and can’t, wind noise at 180km/h is acceptable. The key difference between the Inspira and the Lancer however, lays in the underpinnings, the suspension tuning to be precise.

Lotus has always been credited with the ride and handling of Proton cars and the Inspira is no different. But rather than Lotus working on the car, a bunch of Proton engineers were extensively trained by the engineers at Lotus for the project, so now it’s no longer “Ride & Handling by Lotus” but rather, and it’s about time too, it’s “Ride and Handling by Proton”. At highway speeds the Inspira feels soft and comfortable, absorbing road depressions without channeling too much to the cabin. For me it was perhaps a little too soft and nervous around the faster bits but at the twistier bends around the mountainous region of Janda Baik, the car felt reassuring, planted and easy to control. According to the Proton engineer seated with me in the car, the handling has been tuned to understeer a little rather than oversteer which is good because for the untrained driver, a flick of the tail will definitely scare and provoke dangerous brake-stomping which will just make the situation worse.

So the car looks like a champ, feels like a champ, and drives like a champ, and Proton managed all that with minimal investment, that’s an astounding feat by itself. The new Inspira is currently in its first phase where it still retains some Mitsubishi bits, traits and characteristics, and is only 40% localized. The first phase Inspira’s are also only available for the local Malaysian market. In phase two, the plan is to introduce more visual differences, 60% localization and will be sold in a number of International markets. As the Inspira goes through its life cycle, Mitsubishi Motor Corporation will keep a close eye on the quality of the car and all Inspira’s as well as the assembly lines for all Proton’s will be required to meet an MMC Quality Audit. This ensures that Proton is able to continuously and consistently build quality products, worthy of the Proton/Mitsubishi OEM Collaboration.

The Inspira is the car that all Malaysians have been waiting for for a long time; don’t be put off by the rebadge because the move really does make business sense, and you’re getting a good car for a relatively low asking price. If you don’t believe me, go test drive a Mitsubishi Lancer and compare the prices, you will get what I mean.

As for the business plan, the collaboration of two automotive forces has churned out a great car at a great price. But this is also Proton’s make it or break it step, they got the entire business idea correct, they also got a great product in their hands, but all this hype must be capitalized on and every new model that is introduced next should also inspire and satisfy the buyer by offering great value, because if it doesn’t all hell will break loose and it would be back to the parliamentary debates and forum bashing.

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