The car you see here is going to furrow deeply the brows of Europe's motor industry executives. It comes from Malaysia, a country that might bring satay to your mind but is more likely to invoke Satan to the car manufacturer.

After all, if you were Mr Ford or Mr Vauxhall, what would be your worst nightmare? An up-to-date, high-quality Japanese family car selling for around pounds 1,000 less than mainstream rivals but managing to circumnavigate the import quotas that currently restrict Japanese sales in the UK.

Welcome, then, to the European car man's nightmare, brought to him by Peru-Sahaan Otomobil Nasional from the land where rubber trees grow. That unlikely- sounding company name contracts into Proton, a success story of a car company that has already scored a big hit with its mildly modified and astutely marketed versions of Mitsubishi's 1984 Lancer.

You have seen them, no doubt. Favoured particularly by the older buyer, Protons have scored with their quality, reliability and exceptionally generous warranty (two years or 50,000 miles, with the engine and transmission covered for a further four years). But that familiar Proton is an outdated design, with a cramped interior, and the mainstream motor industry has managed to sleep easy.

Now, though, it has this brand- new Proton to worry about: the Persona. In essence the new car is a modified, Malaysian-built version of Japan's latest Mitsubishi Lancer - not the in-between version, launched in 1988 and still sold here by Mitsubishi itself, but the up-to- the-minute model that went on sale in mainland Europe last year. Think of it as a longer, roomier version of Mitsubishi's pretty and likeable Colt hatchback, and you will get the idea.

So the Persona has proper space for five people, and a design as modern as the opposition's, both stylistically and mechanically. There is more space than you will find in a Ford Escort or a Vauxhall Astra, and virtually as much as in a Mondeo. Yet you can buy one for as little as pounds 8,990, which is the price you will find on the windscreen of the Persona 1.5 GLi saloon.

Now 'GLi' is hyping things up a bit, for this is the entry-level model, which looks luxurious only against a Lada. But if you add another pounds 1,000 to your outlay, you can step right into Proton's new dreamworld. This will buy you a Persona 1.6 XLi saloon; and if you then throw in another pounds 360 (making pounds 10,350 in all), you can have the five-door version shown here.

Inside its comfortable, neatly designed Mitsubishi-clone cabin the XLi has enough civility to satisfy most people, including central locking and an easily mastered Blaupunkt stereo. It has power steering, and enough fabric trim to divert your eyes from the abundance of shiny vinyl. And, like all Personas, it has side-impact bars in the doors, although an airbag will not be available for a couple of years yet. Only customers who feel life is incomplete without electric windows, a sunroof and plush velour upholstery will have to move up to the range-topping SEi version.

Outside, you will notice that the Persona has been given a subtle nose job in its transformation from a Mitsubishi. Styled by Proton and engineered by a British company, Hawtal Whiting, the new nose on the XLi hides a lively Mitsubishi motor with 26 valves (but only one camshaft) and a healthy 111bhp power output. That is a gain of 22bhp over the smaller, less sophisticated 1.5-litre unit.

So, not surprisingly, this Persona is quite a quick car. Its maker says that it can touch 60mph from a standstill in 10.8 seconds, but the one I tried at a test track was up to that speed in just 9.1 seconds. This gives us the surprising scenario of a Proton that accelerates with the gusto of a Golf GTi, even if its claimed 116mph maximum (my car reached 114) is slightly short of the Volkswagen's.

It feels feisty, too, thanks to an engine that responds crisply to your accelerator foot throughout its range, and spins smoothly right up to its rev limit. It is not especially quiet, but its rorty, sporty note is pleasant enough.

Wait a minute, though. We are talking about a Proton here, so this fun-to-drive business should be irrelevant. Or should it? After all, this unlikely car also handles rather well, with light, positive steering and confident crisp reactions. Roadholding is strong, too, but bumpy roads can make the suspension shudder.

The Persona has a split persona. It does all the things a Proton should, such as being a lot of car for the money, and easy and undemanding to drive; but it is also a highly competent machine with an unexpected ability to entertain. If the British public takes to this new side of the Proton personality as it has to the old, familiar one, Europe's motoring manufacturers have troubled nights to come.

SPECIFICATIONS

Proton Persona 1.6 XLi, 5-door, pounds 10,350. Engine: 1,597cc, four cylinders, 111bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 116mph, 0-60mph in 10.8 seconds. 32-37mpg.

COMPARISONS

Hyundai Lantra 1.6 GLS, pounds 10,299, Another Japanese-influenced car that costs less than you might expect. The Korean-built Lantra uses some Mitsubishi mechanical parts, but is otherwise Hyundai's own design. It looks good, is well equipped and gives you a spirited drive.

Peugeot 405 Style, pounds 9,895. This bargain 1.4-litre Peugeot is the cheapest of the mainstream family cars from big-name makers, but it lacks the pace and equipment level of the Proton. It wins hands down on ride comfort, though.

Rover 214 Si, pounds 10,830. Now revised with a heritage-effect radiator grille (and the better for it), Rover's popular hatchback has peppy performance and an inviting interior. Power steering is standard, too.

Seat Toledo 1.8 GLXi, pounds 10,995. You gain equipment over the Proton, but you pay more for the privilege. Another good-value car, based on Volkswagen Golf mechanicals; the Spanish body shape conceals an enormous boot. Build quality is not the best.

(Photograph omitted)

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