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The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago, when the first Proton cars began to pour into Britain from Malaysia, nobody dreamt they would sell in large numbers - even among drivers unswayed by the snobberies and nuances of fashion. The idea that they might turn the heads of hip youths wearing reversed baseball caps, as they do now, would have been laughable. In the beginning, a Proton's appeal was almost purely economic. These cars came at rock- bottom prices; what they offered was reliable, cheap and cheerful motoring for people not remotely concerned about style or personality in a vehicle.

This month, with the launch of the Persona Compact, Proton makes fast- track progress from reliable naffness towards key-player status. The new model will operate in territory dominated by VW, Peugeot, Vauxhall and Nissan, advancing on the position already reached by the earlier Persona saloon. In the 1990s, the Malaysians are displaying the same inexorable move from modestly imitative beginnings to independent confidence as the Japanese did during the previous decade. What's more, where competitive pricing is concerned, the fast-expanding Malaysian industrial sector is fortunate to have most of the raw materials needed for auto manufacture on its own home soil.

Yet even with these economic advantages, corners have undoubtedly been cut. Though the Persona Compact cabin is roomy and light, the seats are rather saggy; the carpets aren't exactly snugly tailored; the interior plastic trim looks cheap; and, in one or two out-of-the-way places around the front apron, the primer is clearly showing through the top coats of paint. Proton can't be too concerned about small oversights like this last one, however, because they offer a six-year anti-corrosion guarantee and a three-year paintwork warranty just the same. But though the car meets European standards of structural strength, of course, it doesn't quite provide the sensation of heavy metalwork you get from a Volkswagen Golf or Polo.

The Persona's styling, however, has become quite elegant, with its teardrop headlamps, fluted door panelling and bonnet, and sophisticated metallic colour schemes. It's very roomy inside for its class, and it runs with surprising zest, though it's perhaps a little fidgety on urban roads; even the 1.5-litre engine gets noisy and runs out of puff on relatively undemanding slopes, requiring some vigorous gear-stirring. But building down to the price hasn't left this Proton short of safe and convenient standard fittings - like a driver's-side airbag, ignition immobiliser, full instrumentation and a rear wash/wipe.

The badge still looks, as an observer of the early Protons once uncharitably remarked, like a fried egg thrown at a wall; one young admirer of the Compact was prepared to admit he'd consider buying a Proton now, but he'd take the badge off. And though the car handles without fuss or surprises, the gearshift (a significant feature of a car that needs a lot of gear changing) has such a cramped gate that first and third seem only separated by a whisker. As a town runabout, I'd still prefer a Punta, a Golf or even a Corsa - but Golfs come at five- figure prices, and the other two are at least pounds 1,000 more expensive than the Proton for comparable zippiness. This is a clever piece of packaging.

GOING PLACES: Noisy but eager engine on the flat, though a bit short- winded on hills. 0-60mph in approximately 12 seconds; overtaking speeds fairly respectable, with astute gearchanging; gearshift rather awkward.

STAYING ALIVE: Handling and braking adequate, though steering rather inert: fast A-road twisters become a tiring business. Driver's-side airbag standard on 1.5 and 1.6 models, but no anti-lock available. Ride a little lumpy in urban driving; visibility good; driver's seat height adjustment on 1.6 only.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Reclining front seats; power steering; central locking; Blaupunkt stereo; split folding rear seat; tilt/slide sunroof; auto gearboxes.

BANGS PER BUCK: At pounds 8,799, this is a very competitive basic price for performance and practicality; reliable; fuel economy OK at approximately 30mpg in town, 38mpg on motorways; good guarantees - six-year anti-rust, three-year/60,000-mile general warranty; six-year/60,000-mile engine/transmission.

STAR QUALITY: Great price, much-improved styling, and lively engines.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Unrefined, noisy, poor interior trim, that badge.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Fiat Punto 75SX (pounds 8,700) - charismatic, roomy, much more fun to drive, but also costlier; Vauxhall Corsa 1.4i (pounds 8,800) - comfortable, safe, roomy, slower, and a dull handler; Volkswagen Polo 1.4 (pounds 10,000) - a great little car to look at and to use; roomy and solid as a rock, but slower, and considerably more expensive.