Motoring: Road Test - Extreme, as in not too bad

Malaysia's Proton are giving it some welly in the hype department to boost their entry into the hot hatch market. `Handling by Lotus,' it says here. But does their advertising campaign protest too much? Could it be that their deep-throated GTi just a lot of hot air?

Proton. Is that not the car your retired uncle drives? Suits him fine, actually. It is based on an old Mitsubishi, does not go wrong, did not cost a lot. The glamour quotient is negligible, but that does not bother uncle.

But it does bother Proton. Future Protons will not be based on Mitsubishis, now that the company has a research and development department in its native Malaysia and one in the UK in the form of Lotus, most of which it owns. Proton needs to attract new, younger buyers. Hence the cred- enhancing street-racer you see here.

It is called the Proton GTi and it comes with Loaded-literate advertising such as: "More screws per car. Guaranteed"; "Men have G-spots too"; "More effective than rhino horn". Priced optimistically high at pounds 14,499, it is cast as a proper, hard-edged GTi along the lines of past Golf and Peugeot 205 GTis, a reaction to the overdose of softness and subtlety that has seeped into the hot-hatchback canon of late.

Thanks to the work that Lotus has done on the starting point for this car (the Proton Compact, based on the previous-generation Mitsubishi Colt), the GTi can wear "Handling by Lotus" badges. It also wears 17 GTi badges, to make sure no one misses the message.

But you do not really need to get within badge-reading distance, because the car has fat, six-spoke wheels, deep-throat air intakes, side skirts, spoilers and wheel-arch extensions to set the tone. Two rectangular exhaust pipes, too: very Max Power. The "More screws" relates to the wheel-arch attachments, by the way.

Inside, the old Colt-like cabin is spiced up with a textured aluminium- look fascia finish that is echoed on the upholstery of the body-clamping seats (maybe it is a reference to the chain mail you might wear for battle) and those essential markers of the modern hot hatchback, aluminium pedals and a machined aluminium gear-lever knob (with rather sharp edges). You get air-conditioning and a CD-stacker, too.

For many Max Power readers it could happily end there, as their macho- looking cars often contain the lowliest of engines to keep them insurable. Here, though, we find the 1.8-litre, 133bhp engine from the Proton Coupe, plus shorter, stiffer springs, revised dampers and suspension pivots and firmer mountings for the steering rack. Suspension arms are strengthened, and the front anti-roll bar is linked to the suspension struts for sharper steering.

The GTi's project leader, Graham Sutherland, worked with John Miles, one-time Formula One racer and long-time Lotus suspension guru, to hone the Proton into shape. Mr Miles would have liked to do more, but he is quite pleased with the result. The Proton GTi is, in some ways, very good indeed. For example, it is unerringly stable if you swerve or if you suddenly need to slow down in a fast corner. I tried to get it unsettled on Lotus's test track, but it just gripped and gripped. No one with a no-claims bonus to preserve need fear this car, which comes with a year's free insurance for buyers over 25.

This GTi is also quite fast, with a fair punch through most of the engine's speed range. It makes quite a racket at high revs, and it is a flat, characterless noise. The gear change feels neat, though, thanks to a positive, Lotus- engineered linkage. Such precision counts for a lot when you are forming first impressions. A firm, chunky ride and positive, meaty steering help, too.

But you drive a few more miles and you start to wonder. Does the suspension need to be so firm, or is it just that way to make a buyer feel that he - or, ads notwithstanding, she - is driving something that must be a bit sporty because it is banging over bumps? And is the whole experience proving a shade, well, wooden? Is the G-force maybe missing that G-spot?

Good hot hatchbacks, and indeed Proton's successful rally cars, tuck harder into a corner if you decelerate, then let you power out of it in a sort of drift. This "throttle steerability" adds to the fun but demands some sensitivity - as intuitive in most of us as the ability to ride a bicycle - from the driver. But the GTi does not really do that, because Lotus has made it idiot-proof.

It looks like a hairy monster and feels at first as though it may be one, but in the end it proves insufficiently stimulating to the brain's pleasure centres. It is extreme in appearance only. The insurance company will not mind, though.

Specifications

Proton GTi

Price: pounds 14,499

Engine: 1,834cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 133bhp at 6,500rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: top speed of 126mph, 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds, achieves 28 to 33 miles per gallon

RIVALS

Citroen Saxo VTS: pounds 12,000. Smaller and cheaper than the Proton, and considerably more fun. One of the best.

Fiat Punto HGT: pounds 13,495. New Punto is as well-equipped as the Proton GTi. But has a similar shortfall in the fun factor, too.

Ford Puma 1.7: pounds 14,995. A coupe rather than a hot hatchback, and a quick, smooth and entertaining one. Cramped, though.

Peugeot 206 GTI: pounds 13,995. Fast, fun and refined, this is how to make a hot hatchback mature without losing the plot. Terrific.

Volkswagen Golf GTI 2.0: pounds 15,955. Relaxed, not-very-sporty. Epitomises the softening of the hot hatchback in the Nineties.

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