You've probably seen an image of Proton's three-door hatchback, the Persona Compact, plastered across poster sites. The picture's background is a sampler of standard equipment snippets designed to make you think there are many more. It's an understandable ad campaign, given that the Proton name rates about 0.1 on the glamour scale. Indeed, what image- conscious person cares about a Malaysian maker of cast-off Mitsubishi designs?

The Proton needs to woo hearts as well as heads, and the Persona Compact SEi is almost the car to do it. Based on the just-superseded Mitsubishi Colt, but with a distinctive Proton design at the nose and tail, it's a neat, rounded car which looks modern enough for you not to notice it isn't.

What you do notice in the SEi are a go-faster spoiler on the rear edge of the roof, body-colour bumpers and chunkily wide tyres. Once you have got to grips with the sticky gearchange it proves rather lively, with performance on a par with that of a Volkswagen Golf GTi.

The SEi has a smooth, free-revving 16-valve engine able to deliver 111bhp, with quick, accurate steering and strong roadholding. It soaks up bumps effectively, too; this car's dynamics are well up to modern standards. But for all its accuracy, the steering provides about as much feel of the road as a video game.

Not quite a sporty hatchback, not quite a bargain runabout, the new Proton seems to be a bit of this and a bit of that. And in terms of all those added extras the ad implies, what do you get? Standard-fit air conditioning, a driver's airbag, a sweet-sounding but ultimately feeble stereo...


Proton Persona Compact SEi, pounds 10,499 Engine: 1597cc, four cylinders, 111bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 116mph, 0-60 in 10.8 seconds. Fuel consumption: 34-39mpg


Fiat Punto Sporting, pounds 9,742 Roomy, with intriguing looks. Refinement and ride comfort could be better, and the Sporting tag is a misnomer.

Ford Fiesta Si three-door, pounds 9,895 Newly restyled with an eager engine of 1.25 litres, a simple but inviting interior and greatly improved suspension.

Honda Civic 1.4 three-door, pounds 10,995 Latest of many Civic generations, with improved cabin space. It is efficient, well made but a little uninspiring.

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