Proton appears to have come a long way since it began selling cars in the UK that were revised versions of Mitsubishis which had ceased production.
Although the former Mitsubishis now sold by Proton have moved on a generation and have had their underpinnings fettled by Proton-owned Lotus, it was only with the launch of the Impian that the company produced its first in-house car.
Despite the 1.6-litre petrol engine coming from Mitsubishi (the company also plans to add a 1.8-litre Renault unit), the design was all Proton's own work, while Lotus provided its expertise to ensure the car would have decent ride and handling.
Proton claims the new Impian will be a contender in the upper-medium sector – not against the class leaders such as the Ford Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat and Renault Laguna, but among at those at the budget end of the sector, like the Skoda Octavia, Mitsubishi Carisma and even the Toyota Avensis.
In spite of this, Proton would still seem to be rather ambitious and is placing a great deal of confidence in the Impian.
Although bigger fleets would be unlikely to buy the Impian in large numbers, there is strong appeal for smaller businesses that might be able to establish a good relationship with a local Proton dealer.
Fleet News is assessing the Impian's chances against two other low-price family cars that just make it into the upper-medium sector. Almost £1,000 more would buy the Mitsubishi Carisma using the fuel-efficient GDI (gasoline direct injection) engine, while for a little less than the Impian's £12,000 asking price you could pick up a Skoda Octavia 1.6 Ambiente.
Neither car would be at the top of fleet choice lists, but for this sort of cash they represent plenty of car for the money.
None of these three cars is a good example of low depreciation, but the Proton is some way behind the Carisma and Octavia, which are both close to the upper-medium class average.
Although the UK is an easy market for Proton to export to – with right-hand drive cars as in Malaysia – the brand is not established well enough to command interest as a used proposition.
Despite costing almost £1,000 more than the Impian, the Carisma GDI does not depreciate at a significantly higher rate and pennies separate them in our sample leasing rates.
The Skoda Octavia benefits from costing less in the first place, with depreciation over three years/60,000 miles at 12.6 pence per mile, and a leasing rate more than £50 a month lower than the other two cars.
The Skoda also has marginally lower SMR costs than the other two cars, at 2.29 pence per mile compared with 2.45 pence for the Proton and the Mitsubishi, while fuel costs are also close with each car expected to achieve around 40mpg.
The Impian is good news from a company car tax perspective, though, being tax neutral for high mileage drivers this year. Anyone who was in a higher band under the old system will also be better off.
After spending 2002/03 in the 15% tax band, the driver would pay tax at 16% in 2003/04, rising to 18% in 2004/05. An impressive performance and far better than we are used to from budget Far Eastern manufacturers.
THE Impian is a good car to drive, but turns out to be a mixed bag in the running costs arena. Depreciation is high and it cannot compete with the Skoda or Mitsubishi in terms of its build quality.
If the car was £2,000 less to buy, we could understand the reasoning behind it but at £12,000 on the road, not only is it more expensive than the respected Octavia, it is less than £1,000 away from the Mitsubishi Carisma with a more powerful 1.8-litre GDI engine. Also £12,995 will buy the Kia Magentis 2.5 V6 LX, which is well equipped and is two classes above the Impian in terms of its size.
We would have to rule the Impian out as a sensible fleet choice, and out of the three cars in this comparison, pick the Octavia as the winner.
It is almost as good to drive as the Impian and has it soundly beaten on running costs.
Behind the wheel
THE Impian is a good looking car and, compared with the two rivals selected, is arguably the best looking of the three.
It is a neat and simple design, but is quite distinctive with the V-shape at the front of the bonnet and squared headlamps.
Proton is probably a bit cheeky in claiming that the Impian is an upper-medium car. Since the launch of the latest Ford Mondeo and Citroen C5, cars in this sector have become particularly generous in terms of interior space.
While the Impian might be bigger than the five-door Proton Wira, its interior dimensions would be competitive with a market-leading upper-medium car of about 10 years ago, although it does hold its own against the Skoda Octavia.
The seats are also quite small – something to do with the average Malaysian being more petite than the average UK resident – although Proton plans to introduce larger seats by the time the additional engine becomes available. However, this would surely make the interior feel more cramped.
The other disappointment is that when I sat behind the wheel I found it obscured my view of some of the instruments. When I tried adjusting the seat to raise its height, I discovered it was already at its highest setting.
The standard equipment list is hefty, even in this entry-level version. 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. Nissan Primera take note.
Although the interior is neatly designed in general, there are too many shiny plastic surfaces and switches, and some of the fittings are wobbly. We know this is the budget end of the sector but Octavia and Carisma prices start at under £10,000 and they have no such trouble.
Driving the Impian is a different experience. After a few hundred yards it becomes evident that this is a well engineered car. It rides comfortably and steers with precision, making it a great car with which to attack your favourite B-roads. Although the 102bhp 1.6-litre engine needs winding up before it delivers its best performance, the slick gearchange helps keep it in the peak torque band.
There is plenty of grip – remember this car isn't particularly fast so you don't generally arrive at corners having to stand on the brakes – and the car does not wallow around in tighter bends.
The Impian is a car of two halves – it is excellent to drive but the interior finish is disappointing. It is not helped by its price – £12,000 is a lot to spend on such an incomplete package.
I WAS looking forward to driving the Impian with about as much relish as a visit to the dentist's but as it turned out I was pleasantly surprised. As my colleague points out, the car is comfortable and competent out on the road in terms of acceleration and cornering, so you can't expect a lot more for the price. But specification is generous for the money too and the car looks much better in the metal than you'd expect. My only gripe was with the quality of some of the fixtures and fittings, which looked suspect in the extreme.