Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Waja woes - The Proton Waja 1.8

When the Proton Waja was launched in 2000, it was a promising start for the Malaysian national car manufacturer's future as an independent car maker. Up till then, Proton had been producing old Mitsubishi Lancers and Galants under license from the Japanese manufacturer, renaming them the Saga, Wira and Perdana. It even tried a tie-up with French manufacturer Citroen, which resulted in the horrid Proton Tiara.

The Waja was Proton's first attempt at building a car of its own from scratch. And to do so, it developed its own platform with the help of german specialist EDAG, and clothed it with bodywork that was safe but not totally unattractive. Combining elements of the Volkswagen Bora and the current-generation Mitsubishi Lancer, the Waja was a car that was best described as "conservative".

The conservative lines of the Waja - unchanged since its launch in 2000

Initially offered with a reworked version of Mistubishi's venerable 4G15 engine bored out to 1.6 litres and fitted with a DOHC head and mated to either a 5 speed manual or a 4 speed electronically governed automatic transmission, the Waja range was later expanded to include a 1.8 litre model, powered by a Renault engine.

When it was first launched, the car was hailed as "Asia's answer to BMW". Proton has probably learnt the hard way that merely having a Lotus (Proton owns the British outfit) tuned suspension does not justify that tag. BMW built its reputation on handling as well as impeachable build quality. The Waja was anything but a quality product.

The Waja interior - looks good, but feels quite dreadful

The first batch of Waja's were praised for their handling characteristics but booed incessantly for their appaling build quality. Hard, shiny, brittle plastics peppered the interior, body panels barely fitted together and most cars were riddled with electrical and mechanical failures. But the Waja continued to sell, thanks to its keen pricing. At slightly more than RM 60k, it offered the space of a 1.6 litre car for the price of a 1.3 litre subcompact.

Over time, Proton tried to make amends, and admittedly, by 2002, the quality of the Waja had improved noticeably, though quality control issues still plagued most cars. I know of many owners complaining of failed power window motors, water leaks, squeaks and rattles from day 1 of ownership and even cars catching fire due to electrical failures.

Its been a good 4 years since the car was launched, and recently I had the oppurtunity to drive, for an extended period of time, a 1.8 litre Waja automatic kindly loaned to me by the people at Proton Edar.

Taking delivery of the car at the impressive Proton Edar facility at Ampang, the car was in a nice shade of silver that brought out the best of the car's slightly staid lines. It may be boring and safe, but the car's design has aged well and still looks current despite the emergence of newer, more stylish models from Korean and Japanese manufacturers who are increasingly making inroads into the Malaysian market.

The 1.8 Waja - wearing larger wheels and tyres to distinguish it from the 1.6

Getting on board, the cabin looked familiar. Nothing has been changed in terms of design and the ergonomics remain well thought out. Controls are still where you'd expect them to be, bar the cruise control stalk, which is obscured by the thick spokes of the steering wheel. Instrumentation is good, the speedo, tacho and the fuel and coolant gauges being clearly marked and sportily decked out in silver.

Stylish instrument pack lit in red at night

But venture beyond looking and start touching bits of the interior and the truth hits home. The quality of the plastics in the cabin is simply woeful. Tap on any part of the dashboard and you're greeted by the hollow sound sound of thin, brittle plastic. All surfaces are unyielding to the touch and the fit and finish of the bits that make up the interior is frightful.

The air vents for the air conditioning are possibly the worst bit of automotive design yet. They swivel only about 15 degrees up and down, meaning that re-direction of airflow vertically within the cabin is strictly limited. They cannot swivel down beyond the horizontal, meaning its impossible to get airflow directed below the driver's chest. Worst still is the fact that the centre air vents is angled towards the driver and is constantly either blowing at his face or his palms. Very annoying.

The offending air vents - limited directional adjustment

The front seats of the Waja, which initially came under fire for its overtly aggresive lumbar support and rock-hard cushions, has been softened up considerably, though the lumbar support curve on the backrest still causes the occupant to sit as if he/she was preggers.

Overall though, quality has been upped a notch compared to the first batch of Waja's that rolled off the Proton factory at Shah Alam, but its way behind its more contemporary competitors such as the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Interior space though, is very good, with enough space for two 6-footers to sit back-to-back. I would have wished for a little more rearward travel on the driver's seat adjustment, but set at its rearmost position, the driving position was satisfactory if not brilliant. The steering wheel adjusts for height only, and even at its highest setting, my thigh was constantly grazing the lower edge of the wheel when exiting or entering the car.

This version of the Waja is powered by a 118bhp Renault engine and paired with a 4 speed "Proactive" automatic from the french car maker. The engine incorporates fancy drive-by-wire throttle technology and variable valve timing, and the gearbox is of the "fuzzy logic" variety that is claimed to learn the driver's style and adapt its shift map to suit.

Driving the car, I honestly thought the car had gone wonky on me. The gearbox was more "fuzzy" than "logic", shifting with noticable clunks in the driveline. It also held on to gears unecessarily. Trigger a kickdown to overtake and the gearbox hangs on to the lower ratio for 10-20 seconds more despite the fact that you've come off the throttle. Shifting between 1st and 2nd was particularly awful, the gearbox doing so with a thump akin to shifting a manual tranny without disengaging the clutch.

Another thing that struck me was how unbelievably loud the engine was. The engine whooshes along loudly even when idle, and whines incessantly when asked to rev. It builds into a harsh roar once past 2,000rpm, which unfortunately is where the gearbox likes to keep the revs at.

The 1.8 litre Renault engine - powerful but impossibly noisy

Taking off from standstill was not something I relished as earplugs should have been standard equipment for this car. Step on the gas and you're greeted by the coarse wail of the engine, acccompanied by the whining of the gearbox that shudders its way from 1st to 2nd and then lurches into 3rd before abruptly getting into overdrive 4th. I've driven the Renault Laguna before, with the same drivetrain, and I honestly do not recall it having such crude manners.

The stylish Laguna which donated its drivetrain to the Waja

Power is adequate, if not mind-boggling. In all honesty, the 1.6 which I've tried many times, feels spritelier. For some strange reason, step-off is particularly tardy on the 1.8, the torque converter in the gearbox taking an inordinate amount of time to load up before delivering forward thrust. But once on the move, passing power is impressive, the car overtakes slower traffic with distinct ease, if not particularly silent when doing so. The effect of the variable valve timing can be felt between 2,500rpm and 3,500rpm, where the engine gets a second wind and picks up cleanly even when the gearbox decides it wants to stay in overdrive for overtaking.

Manual downshifts from overdrive to 3rd is facilitated by an "O/D Off" button on the side of the gear selector, but I found that it was all too easy to accidentally hit this button with my knee when resting my left leg against the centre console. Troubling ergonomic error on Proton's part. Once I wondered why the car was screaming at 4,000rpm at a steady 80km/h cruise only to find my knee had accidentally triggered this function on the gear selector.

Throughout the time I had with this car, the gearbox produced odd, often frustrating results. Sometimes the electronics and I would sync and the drivetrain performed faultlessly, with well-timed down and up shifts. Its tendency to drop gears on downhill stretches and hold on to lower gears intuitively when I was pressing on was particularly impressive. Here was an automatic gearbox that thought it was a manual.

But most of the time the darned transmission and I just didn't see eye to eye. It upshifted when I really wanted it to stay in gear, downshifted when I didn't really want it to and held on to gears that were far too low on some declines, forcing me to crawl downhill at 40km/h with the engine bouncing off its rev limiter and doing its best to render the occupants deaf. For this reason alone, if I were in the market for a Waja, I'd plump for the 1.6 with the Mitsubishi automatic. Shifts on that model are a lot smoother and it never tries to second-guess the driver.

Ride and handling however, is quite brilliant. Lotus engineering really did a good job of giving the Waja handling that an enthusiast would appreciate. Compared to cars like the Corolla Altis and Honda Civic, the Waja is the sports car of the trio. Turn ins are sharp and the steering remains communicative throughout. Body roll is well contained but naturally, the trade off is a slightly stiff ride that can prove tiring on bumpier stretches of road. On highways, the suspension feels constantly busy though, never settling down into a restful gait. Cars like the Corolla are far better at cosseting the occupants from road harshness.

At the end of the day, the Waja 1.8 is a flawed car. Seriously flawed. The only reason I would plump for one is purely on price, as most of its 1.8 competitors such as the Chevrolet Optra 1.8 retails for almost RM 20k more. But at RM 72k for the model I drove, its silly money for a car that is as badly built and as bad to drive as this.

Sure, it handles well, but the handling benefits of its suspension tuning is hardly ever exploited by the owners since cars like these are destined to a life of rush hour commute. For just under RM 10k less, I'd rather live with the 1.6 version of the Waja. At about RM 65k, the smaller engined car delivers all the handling benefits of the 1.8 litre with a hugely better drivetrain. Low tech it may be, but the Mitsubishi-derived engine and gearbox combo proves to be a better pairing than the temperamental Renault units in the larger capacity Waja. Refinement and transmission performance are in a different league altogether. Although far from being class-competitive with the best from Japan, the 1.6 proves a better partner in the long run.


At September 24, 2005 at 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Waja's chassis was sourced from Laguna-2,not Laguna-3!!!!!!!

At October 23, 2005 at 4:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also check out new jetta 2006

At October 26, 2005 at 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good write up 500 67 gt mustang shelby

At March 29, 2006 at 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

please does the buider have any commonsense to sell and built a crap car do they got their brain in the wrong position

At March 29, 2006 at 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please do not built any more shit bucket however cheap they are CLOSED SHOP!!!.

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