There isn’t much about the Proton X50 which isn’t already in the public domain. In fact, more than 20,000 individuals have already put down a booking for the stylish crossover before the price is known, let alone take a test drive.
That this is happening over the course of an economic downturn brought on by a raging pandemic makes it that much more remarkable, but also a little concerning at the same time (do you really need a new car?). The way things are going, Proton isn’t going to make enough of these X50s for months to come, and that may well be the short-term reprieve for other brands offering similarly priced options. Suffice to say, Proton dealerships had better to ramp up their services to cater to more customers and their cars. A lot more.
The sampling of the X50 at Sepang recently showed why it’s the kind of product that can change brand perceptions and convince even the harshest of critics, at least those who can look beyond politics. Having experienced a static Geely Binyue nearly two years ago at the Guangzhou motor show, it’s good to see that its right-hand drive sibling has survived the transition well – the X50’s Infinite Weave grille and new emblem gives it a bolder look.
Climbing onto the rear seats of X50 reveals something not seen on the LHD Binyue – the addition of second row air-con vents, but more impressive is how supportive the rear seats are, rare for this class, along with an abundant of legroom which has become the standard fare for mainstream cars sold in the Chinese mainland.
If anything, the perceived quality of the cabin is going to be one of the X50’s main attractions. In 1.5TGDI Flagship trim (the only variant available for test at Sepang), it feels every bit like a product from a premium brand, and we don’t say this lightly. The touch points reek of quality; the stitching on leather (and leatherette) surfaces are impeccable, and every knob and button feels tactile, all presented with an air of sophistication.
In home country where Volkswagen sets the benchmark as the best-selling brand, you can understand why Geely (currently in the top three position) has had to offer build quality and technological content that match up to the market leader.
But unlike the heavy-handed approach typical of most other homegrown brands (e.g. slapping an oversized tablet on the centre console being the rage), Geely’s execution is much more tasteful and ‘continental’ in flavour, and that has a lot to do with having a multinational design crew led by Peter Horbury (ex-Volvo, Ford).
The other big plus of being part of a global automotive group isn’t just the economies of scale but having access to the latest platforms, powertrains and safety technologies that a lone manufacturer would otherwise have to develop on its own, or purchase at great costs.
In the case of the X50, it is underpinned by Geely group’s new BMA platform and driven by a powertrain co-developed with Volvo; rated at either 150hp/226Nm or 177hp/255Nm, the latter with direct injection and a higher compression ratio. Both 1.5-litre turbocharged 3-cylinder engines are mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission utilising wet clutch lubrication – the kind of hardware worth bragging about.
Front grille, emblems and rear air-con vents aside, Proton also had the opportunity to ‘re-tuned’ the X50’s suspension while localising the vehicle for assembly at its Tanjong Malim plant; the springs, dampers, front anti-roll bar and steering weights have been “optimised for Malaysian roads”, and while we can’t confirm the ride quality of the X50 on the smooth tarmac of Sepang circuit, it felt reassuringly surefooted and nimble being hurled through the slalom and lane change exercises.
Observing from kerbside, the ticking noise of the direct-injection 3-cylinder is unmistakable at idle and low speeds, but the clatter is surprisingly muted once in the cabin, even at full throttle. Notwithstanding a brief lag on take-off, the turbocharged three-pot is punchy performer in the mid band, with the DCT upshifting smoothly and quickly. It’s probably too much to ask for shift paddles on the steering, though the drive-by-wire gear selector does offer a manual mode.
There’s no point in reading too much into the drag races against the BMW X1 sDrive18i (1.5-litre 3-cylinder turbo rated at 140hp/220Nm) and the Honda HR-V (naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder with 142hp/172Nm), the X50 1.5TGDI was almost always going to emerge tops with 177hp and 255Nm, but the main takeaway is clear – the X50 punches way, way above its pay scale and is going to disrupt brands that currently sits above it. And that is game changing.