Three versions of the well-equipped Proton Arena come into SA, with two available immediately and the third from May.
Proton is a subsidiary of Imperial-owned Associated Motor Holdings, SA's largest importer of cars, and it has started to increase its representation across the country, with all major and main secondary areas covered by the end of January.
Dealerships can be found in Bryanston, Centurion, East Rand, Menlyn, Randburg, West Rand, Brits, Klerksdorp, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth
By the end of February there will also be dealerships in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Richards Bay/Empangeni, East London, Edenvale, Cape Town, George and Somerset West.
A further 6 - 10 dealers are planned for June 2006.
More new models
The Arena complements the existing Proton Gen2 sedan, and will be followed by the Savvy small hatchback in February, with more models planned for later in the year, including the SRM medium hatchback and its 141 kW GTI derivative.
In terms of its positioning, the Arena is aimed squarely at the Opel Corsa Utility and Ford Bantam, but benefits from immediate availability.
We drove the new cars on a short route around Johannesburg, and we were very impressed by the high standards of ride and roadholding - well on par with most small sedans on the market - and the superb drive train.
Proton owns famous sports car marque Lotus, and engineers from the British-based company are involved in the development of suspension systems for all Proton vehicles.
As Malaysia's biggest car firm, Proton has enlisted partnerships with several established companies in the development of its cars and bakkies, and as a result we see the Arena with a superb drive train from Mitsubishi.
The 1.5-litre motor pushes out 64 kW at 6 000 r/min with excellent torque of 126 Nm at 3 000 r/min, and even at the power-sapping Reef altitudes this translates into a nippy and willing vehicle that can carry a 625 kg payload and tow a 665 kg trailer mass.
Proton claims a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 13.7 secs and a top speed of 155 km/h.
On the road the Arena is comfortable to drive, and I was thrilled by the super-smooth gearbox. I can't remember driving ANY car with a smoother shift than this one.
The three versions are an entry-level 1.5i version (only due from May), an intermediate GL model and a top-of-the-line luxury GLX.
All have the same engine and 5-speed gearbox. Suspension sees MacPherson struts with gas-filled shocks up front and a leaf-sprung rear axles with telescopic shock absorbers.
Braking is via 256 mm vented discs at the front and self-adjusting 228 mm drums at the back.
The attractively designed Arena, derived from the Wira sedan made in Malaysia, has a combined monocoque front/ladder chassis rear platform design, linked by a strong transverse torque box which helps give the car excellent side impact resistance.
The interior of the vehicle features a well-designed dash, in metallic-look painted metal akin to that on a MINI, with instrumentation comprising speedo and revcounter as well as fuel and temperature gauges.
The steering wheel is a soft-rimmed three-spoke offering with a large centre boss, with tilt adjustment, and there's a small drop-down glovebox as well as map pockets in both doors, plus a central stowage box.
The seats are comfortable and well-shaped, and have reach and backrest adjustment, and there's room behind them for a briefcase or toolbox.
The Arena is smartly finished with body coloured door mirrors, door handles and bumpers and a stylish roll over bar and rear bumper on the GL and GLX models.
All models come with useful features such as external power sockets and warning devices for lights and doors.
The windscreen is tinted and laminated, and the one-handed dropdown tailgate can take a load of 300 kg, especially important when lifting heavy stuff aboard. The tailgate can also be completely removed.
Road clearance is 170 mm and there's a useful 60 litre fuel tank.
The following standard specifications are available on all three models:
Load sensing brake proportioning sensing valve
Steering with tilt column
Full size spare wheel
Remote fuel lid opener
Ignition key illumination with delay timer
Driver and passenger seat sliding and reclining adjuster
Metallic finish centre panel
Front and rear mud guards
High mounted stop lamp
Fuel empty warning lamp
Security features include an engine immobiliser, remote central door locking (GLX), internal fuel release and a perimeter alarm.
The entry level and GL versions get 14 inch steel wheels, PVC seat coverings, and remote manually adjustable door mirrors.
Step up to the GL and you also get central locking, a rear step, air conditioning and a (mainly decorative) aluminium "roll bar".
And for those who want it all, the GLX adds cloth seats, electrically-adjustable door mirrors, a front loader Clarion radio/CD, 14 inch alloy wheels, body side protection mouldings, a tonneau cover, and a plastic load liner.
All vehicles prices include a 3 year/ 60 000 km warranty, 3 year/ unlimited mileage paint warranty and 3 year AA road side assistance.
Arena 1.5i R79 995
Arena 1.5i GL R99 995
Arena 1.5i GLX R112 995.