By Jonathan Crouch
We're guessing that the Proton Savvy probably won't be a used citycar at the top of your shortlist if you're looking for a runabout. In fact we'd be surprised if it's there at all given the wealth of alternatives your money could stretch to, based around urban tots produced in the 2005 to 2012 period. If you're looking for a very cheap example of this breed though and you can find yourself a Savvy (no easy task), the Proton could be worth a look. With engineering input from Lotus, it's even pretty good to drive.
That this Malaysian industrial conglomerate works so closely with the Norfolk performance car manufacturer may come as a surprise to many who aren't clued in, but those with a little more savvy will know that Lotus was swallowed up by Proton way back in 1997. It was a smart move in many ways. Lotus were floundering financially but the brand equity would add significant clout to a Proton badge that was desperate for global credibility.
The fact that many are still surprised at learning of Proton and Lotus' tie-up is something of an indictment of Proton's presence in this country which has been near to invisible. The first signs of the partnership came in 1999 when Proton launched the Satria GTi. Lotus took the standard Satria 3-door hatchback and added a little Hethel magic. The result was a superb handling 'hot-hatch', capable of humbling some of the more well known brands. The Satria GTi was well received by all who drove it but didn't manage serious sales. It's still one of the smartest used hot hatch buys around if you don't mind a few rough edges.
Keen to learn from the GTi experience, Proton was quick to use Lotus in the development of all subsequent car launches. In 2001, the Impian was the first Proton to be built on an in-house platform and the saloon car was graced with ride and handling not normally found on 4-door saloons. Perhaps the most significant car in Proton's history was the GEN-2, launched in the UK in September 2004. The Savvy arrived in August 2005 and was designed to go head to head in its home market with the Perodua Myvi - a rebodied Daihatsu Charade. Over here, the list of competitors was a good deal longer and more illustrious, especially on the used market where you can buy a much bigger, more sophisticated car as long as you're willing to compromise a little on vehicle age. The Savvy left the UK new car arena when the Proton marque faded from our market in the 2012-2013 period.
What You Get
The Savvy is a neatly proportioned car, measuring 3710mm in length. This compares with 3456mm for the MK1 Citroen C1 and 3495mm for the MK1 Kia Picanto, so it's a little bigger than the citycar norm, coming half way between these tots and the 3917mm of a supermini like a Ford Fiesta from this era. This means that access to the back through the rear doors isn't as cramped as in certain citycars, helped in no small part by a generously stretched wheel at each corner stance.
Where the Savvy isn't quite as good as rivals like that Citroen C1 is in terms of interior width where it breaks the tape at 1345mm. Needless to say, you wouldn't want to sit three adults across the back.Still, there's a reasonable amount of luggage space, with perfectly flat-folding 50:50 rear seats contributing to a 909-litre boot capacity when they're flat.
What to Look For
Not a lot goes wrong. The interior fittings are not of the highest quality and the centre console does look a lot better than it feels. Make sure the car you're looking at has been serviced on the nose. Other than that, this is one of the least troublesome budget cars you can buy.
(Based on a 2005 1.2 Street) A new clutch will be in the region of £175 and a full exhaust about £450. Front brake pads will set you back in the £26 to £39 bracket, while brake discs can cost as little as around £40. You'll pay around £6 for an oil filter or a fuel filter, around £33 for an ignition coil and around £9 or a drive belt.
On the Road
Only one engine is available, but it's a pleasantly punchy 1.2-litre unit that makes 74bhp. This translates into the ability to hit 60mph in 12.2 seconds, which is very good indeed for a vehicle in the citycar class, as is the 106mph top speed. This is a car with genuine motorway ability. Proton are again quick to point to Lotus involvement in the chassis development. "We wanted a small car that offers practicality, fuel economy, generous space and great all round performance," said a senior Proton suit. "It's not a sports car, nor does it look like a Lotus but certain elements have been engineered into the Savvy that'll give you a taste of what it's like to drive one of the world's best handling vehicles. The results are outstanding."
These elements involved engineering a stronger and more rigid chassis and bringing Lotus Dynamics into a small car, resulting in a vehicle that is surprising when it comes to handling, safety and responsiveness - and one which has good power to weight ratio. In other words, there are all the necessary ingredients needed to make a powerful and enjoyable small package. The Savvy was tested and verified to be stronger than the German and Italian marques that were used as a benchmark in the development process. Although you won't step from a Savvy knowing exactly what a Lotus Exige must feel like as a result, the steering feel alone is leagues better than most small cars.
The Savvy isn't the easiest car to recommend as a used buy. While it's quite a sparkling drive, its price advantage from new is rather erased when buying used. Most would see a year older Fiat Panda or a Ford Ka as a more desirable choice. Still, if the price is right and you want one of the best warranties around, this Proton has a certain appeal.