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Proton Compact GTi

Review

##protgti.jpg --Right##IF you're in the market for an affordable pocket rocket, then your shopping list will probably read something like this: Citroen Saxo VTS, Peugeot 106 GTi, Peugeot 206 GTi, Renault Clio 16v and SEAT Ibiza 1.8 20vT. But Proton? Such a name is unlikely to creep on to any shopping list, never mind one that includes such an array of manic machines capable of cracking 60mph in under 8secs and reaching speeds approaching 130mph.

It's the age-old issue of image again and one that isn't helped by Proton using rebadged versions of old Mitsubishi stock - for the Proton Compact three-door, read previous-generation Mitsubishi Colt; and likewise for the four-door Persona which started out in life as a Lancer - albeit with front and rump enhancements. But at least the Mitsubishi underpinnings brought reliability to Proton's CV, something the company embraces to the full with an aftersales package incorporating three years' free servicing, a three-year/60,000-miles warranty and six-year anti-rust/powertrain cover.

But while such services may appeal to Proton's average customer it's unlikely to attract younger, more demanding drivers and if ever there was a range in need of a little sporting spice, Proton's is surely it. After just 18 months in development the answer lies with the Compact GTi - a joint venture between Proton and Lotus.

But don't think for a minute that this is just a 'warming over' by Lotus. The Compact GTi now sports revised suspension bushes, uprated coil springs and dampers, lowered suspension (10mm at the front, 15mm at the rear), front and rear anti-roll bar to improve body stiffness and a tuned rack and pinion steering for greater feedback providing a commendable trade-off between the ride comfort of lesser superminis and the greater degree of body control and sharpness expected in this class.

Lotus has also taken the GTi into its design studio and penned the aggressive styling you see here. At the heart of the Proton GTi lies the familiar Mitsubishi-sourced 1.8-litre twin-cam 16-valve unit from the Persona Coup_. Developing 133bhp at 6,500rpm and 119lb ft of torque at 5,500rpm, its both peppy and charismatic.

But how many times have you been attracted to a tuned version of the original, only to be left feeling disappointed by its unforgiving ride, top-end-only performance and a stripped-out or tacked-on interior? The Compact GTi, however, is different as Lotus has managed to inject a much-needed dynamic edge. The steering is direct, weighty and communicative, but the chassis is a real gem because it responds instantly to your every input.

The GTi-spec Recaros look and do the business, holding you snugly in place, but through a lack of height adjustment on the driver's seat and height-only adjustable steering wheel, tall drivers will find the interior on the tight side. The facia is finished in aluminium-look plastic and Proton has mirrored Ford's lead by adding a solid aluminium gearknob which feels, and looks, superb. Ergonomically, it's a success although the quality of some push- buttons - particularly those for the fan speed and air con - disappoint.

But there's no faulting the equipment list. Air conditioning, driver's airbag, ABS, electric front windows and mirrors, remote locking, six-disc autochanger, 16in alloy wheels, alarm and immobiliser, metallic paint and Recaros sports seats all feature in the £14,499 asking price. Against the opposition this looks expensive given that the others (bar the SEAT) all weigh in at the £12-12,500 mark, but if you spec-up the rest to the level of the Compact GTi the asking price becomes less of a consideration.

Which means choice is down to the badge and which is the most fun to drive. The Compact GTi's styling won't appeal to every taste, it's not meant too, but the Lotus-tuned chassis is so composed and yet so rewarding at the same time, if you buy one you won't be disappointed. Proton Cars (UK) expects to sell 500-600 GTi's in the coming year and is targeting the 25-45 age group witn a £1.5 million marketing campaign.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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