First looks and driving impressions of the 2019 Proton Iriz

At the end of the last decade, Proton’s product range was already getting old. Distractions internally and limited funding for new model development prevented a clear product plan from being formulated. The Exora, for example, was launched in 2009 and the Saga and Persona were also aged. This not only made it difficult to sell the models overseas (because they would have difficulty meeting regulations in other countries) but even in the home market, car-buyers preferred newer offerings from other brands.

However, a strong effort was made to refresh the range because it was clear that the old models were dragging the company down. Between 2012 and 2014, Proton launched the Iriz, Preve and Suprima S, which suggested a ‘new wind’ as the products were developed with a more global outlook. Then in 2016, four new models were launched – the Saga, Persona, Perdana and Ertiga; the latter two being adaptations from the Honda Accord and Suzuki Ertiga, respectively.

The legacy models in the Proton range today

When Geely came into the picture and Proton’s partner, there were thus seven legacy models still in production and would have to continue to be sold for a while longer as a new product plan was developed. How the legacy models will be dealt with remains to be seen – will there be follow-up generations or will they be dropped altogether? From what we hear, the Malaysian side (DRB-HICOM) has a strong desire to keep the legacy models alive but if that means additional expenditures on R&D, would it make business sense when Geely can provide ‘ready-to-go’ platforms and models to adapt from?

Anyway, that’s something that is still in discussion and for now, there is ongoing work on the current range with the first result being shown in the new Iriz. Although this hatchback is already 5 years old, its engineering was fairly forward-looking so in some respects, it is still marketable. Its performance has been proven in motorsports and it has a following among the younger set with its youthful character.

What’s new for the 2019 model?
The new model, to go on sale in the near future, is essentially a facelift with some technological upgrades to enhance its value for money. As with any facelift exercise, the Proton designers were constrained by structural forms. Thus, they could change the grille and headlights but these had to fit into the openings that already exist; to introduce new shapes of different sizes would mean changing the metal stampings and that would be added cost. However, it’s not so expensive to reshape the bumpers so that allowed the grille to be a bit larger.

The 2019 model (left) with the X70 face has a cleaner look compared to the 2018 model on the right.

The face of the X70 with its ‘Ethereal Bow’ (above) and ‘Infinite Weave’ have been nicely integrated in the Iriz front end. Because the space is smaller, the designers have had to adjust the proportions but the ‘evolution’ has been well done. To match the new face, the bumper has also been reprofiled and complements the new look.

When you look at the rear, the previous Iriz presentation now looks rather plain. The brand name is now boldly shown across the middle, standing out against the black background that also visually enlarges the rear glass area. As at the front, the bumper has also been reshaped to match the new appearance.

Inside, there are no physical changes but the upper section of the cabin is darkened so the overall impression is a sportier one, which is appropriate for the model. The main change is in the infotainment system (only in the top variant) which is now a similar type to what is in the X70 which means that it accepts voice commands which start off with ‘Hi Proton’. However, it doesn’t have the extensive set of functions like the one in the top X70 variant where you can ask for the windows to be opened.

It does have GPS navigation and online music streaming, plus manage telephone calls – things which today’s motorists will welcome. The only thing is that it is dependent on a connection (via Celcom’s 4G LTE service) to the internet and if this connection is not available in some areas or conditions, then the system functionality may be reduced. Nevertheless, you can also mirror your smartphone on the system and use many of the apps.

All variants now have front sensors, a sharkfin antenna and LCD segment multi-info display. As you move up, there are additional features for the extra money paid. A rear spoiler is installed on the Iriz 1.3 CVT upwards and all Executive and Executive variants have auto headlamps and LED DRLs. They also come with a rearview camera with dynamic guidelines displayed on a 7-inch monitor.

The top Premium 1.6 has, besides the more advanced infotainment system, a frameless rearview mirror – first seen in Volvos – and a more stylish shifter knob.

Mechanically and technically, the 2019 Iriz doesn’t have a new powertrain and the same 1.3-litre and 1.6-litre engines are used, with one variant having a manual transmission and the other four having a CVT.

Proton says that some 367 items received improvements, including areas like brake performance and fuel economy. Build quality has also been improved, thanks to assistance from Geely and Volvo. With the expertise of these two companies, Proton can more accurately benchmark quality whereas before, it may have been able get a rough idea of other companies’ products by disassembling them. But that might not necessarily reveal manufacturing secrets which can make a difference in refinement.

Behind the wheel
We had a chance to get brief impressions of the new Iriz at the Proton test track. The driving experience was only on the semi high-speed course with its two angled bankings at either end. Of interest was the CVT which has been undergoing improvement over the years as the engineers have tried to refine it. Apparently, Geely also uses the CVT from the same manufacturer and has developed solutions to overcome some of the issues which it has shared with Proton and vice-versa.

The CVT is now smoother and has better driveability with a more linear response. Actually, many of the engineering improvements were already done in the 2017 update and the latest ones have just added refinement.

It may not be remembered now but the Iriz was actually the first Proton model with an electric power assisted steering system (EPS). The Juara also had EPS but it was a Mitsubishi-developed model. In past experiences with the Iriz, I found the EPS to be well tuned and pushing around the banking at high speeds, I could get the car to track precisely and knew what the front wheels were doing.

As for handling, we were not allowed to do the slalom ourselves and had to sit as passengers. While not much could be ascertained from inside, watching the car go through the manoeuvres from the outside indicated how well it’s planted and it’s no surprise that it has done well in races.

The new infotainment system is nice to have and something to show off to friends. It adds convenience by allowing you to use voice commands and unlike other similar voice command systems, there is a degree of ‘interaction’. Sometimes it can get too ‘chatty’ and become intrusive though. You can also ask it to tell you the weather conditions today and tomorrow but is that something you really want to know? It can also suggest places to go to eat if you say you are hungry. But I think it is also a feature where the novelty may wear off after a while…

How much?
The current Iriz range is priced from around RM40,000 to about RM54,000 and while the new prices haven’t been announced yet, I don’t think they will be significantly higher. After all, the model has been in production for 7 years now and the cost would have progressively gone down. So the incremental cost for the 2019 model might not be substantial and in order to keep it competitive, Proton is unlikely to alter the prices much.

Over the next 11 days (starting from today), Proton is taking a leaf from online shopping sites by having a ‘flash booking’ with a special booking fee of just RM9.99 for bookings made online. To encourage online booking, Proton will also cover the cost of the first two years of roadtax.