Although the UK is Proton's biggest market outside Malaysia, it is a brave move to try to crack the ultra-competitive upper medium sector with its first all-new car. Proton likes to think the Impian can present a challenge to the Ford Mondeo, but it is a more realistic contender at the lower end of the sector with the Skoda Octavia, Mitsubishi Carisma and Hyundai Elantra, while the low price Toyota Avensis and Vauxhall Vectra will provide high-volume competition.
The first Impian on sale is the 1.6-litre, using a new lightweight version of Mitsubishi's 1.6- litre engine, and it will be joined later in the year by a 1.8-litre unit sourced from Renault. But in a few years, Proton's partnership with Lotus will see the introduction of some hi-tech units for the whole Proton range. There is also talk of a high-performance version of the Impian and Proton is looking at sourcing a diesel engine from elsewhere.
The Impian is an attractive looking car, not unlike the current Mitsubishi Carisma but is more interesting. It has a neat front end with modern clear-lens headlamps and a V-shape in the centre of the leading edge of the bonnet. However the rear is rather anonymous.
Only the standard 1.6-litre cars were available at the launch, which is a good thing in some ways because it prevents the manufacturer from disguising a car's shortcomings with high specification and gadgets. But the standard car is certainly high on kit for its £12,000 asking price. All four windows are electric, there is air conditioning and important safety features like front and side airbags (now the norm in this class), ABS and steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo.
But the Impian is let down by the bargain-basement quality of its interior fit and finish - some of the switches feel flimsy, while some of the trim panels do not line up between the dashboard and the doors. It is worth remembering that it is possible to pay less than £10,000 on the road for a Skoda Octavia with far better interior quality, although less equipment.
However, the Impian's finish is a slight improvement over other cars in Proton's range, and the manufacturer has made some efforts to bring European-style textures to some of the plastics, while the seat fabrics are softer than those on Malaysian models. The UK will also gain larger front seats than those currently available, probably when the 1.8-litre Impian goes on sale at the end of the year.
Well equipped and with a low front-end price and good fuel consumption, the Impian should find many buyers in the retail sector. It also has a comprehensive warranty with three years' roadside assistance. Whether it will be a success on small fleets and with user-choosers depends on whether enough people can look beyond the badge and accept it as a low price car with exceptional driver appeal.
And on whether its low initial costs and low fuel costs will be backed up by an acceptable loss through depreciation. It will be interesting to see whether valuation experts place the car alongside the Hyundai Elantra or Mitsubishi Carisma in terms of residual values. According to CAP Network an equivalent Elantra is expected to retain just 23% of its original value after three years/60,000 miles compared with 30% for a Carisma.
Behind the wheel
DRIVING the Impian is a pleasant surprise. Although our test car had just 60 miles on the clock, performance was adequate and would improve as the miles passed by. It was sprightly enough under normal driving, although it ran out of steam as the revs fell below 2,000. But changing down through the slick gearbox was no hardship, and with peak torque coming in at a low 2,750rpm, momentum was easily maintained.
With ride and handling by Lotus, the Impian does not disappoint in either area. Its ride is firmer than the Mitsubishi Carisma, but not quite as hard as the Skoda Octavia. However, the Impian is easily a match for the Octavia on a twisty section of road, with sharp steering providing plenty of feedback.
The Impian makes it easy to pick a line through a series of demanding bends and retain its composure throughout. It really is an entertaining car to drive with little body roll and a smooth ride. The 1.6-litre engine is also frugal, with official figures showing more than 42mpg on the combined cycle, with rivals from Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Skoda languishing in the 30s.
If cars were chosen on driving enjoyment then the Mondeo would be in serious danger of losing its crown to this cut-price saloon. The Impian offers a superb balance of ride quality and handling in a large family saloon with a low price.