REVIEW | Should you take a gamble on the Proton X90?

15 November 2023 - 11:31
By Brenwin Naidu
The Proton X90 has an upright, multi-purpose vehicle stance.
Image: Supplied The Proton X90 has an upright, multi-purpose vehicle stance.

In the early 2000s Proton first came to local market with the Gen-2 hatchback.

It was a youthful looker, with a sticker on the tailgate boasting about the brand association with Lotus, which was under ownership of the Malaysian firm.

The line-up expanded with the trendy Satria Neo, budget orientated Savvy and Saga, a sedan variant of the Gen-2. And then the carmaker exited Mzansi quietly, leaving owners in the lurch.

Now Proton is back, returning to South Africa in 2022, spearheaded at launch by two sport-utility vehicles: the B-segment X50 and family size X70. The brand is backed by the Combined Motor Holdings group. It has 23 dealers with two more in the pipeline. Last month, Proton sold 129 units.

Earlier this year, the Proton range was joined by the X90, taking position at the top of the product hierarchy. We tested the model last week.

Interior evinces a durable feel on the surface.
Image: Supplied Interior evinces a durable feel on the surface.

In 2017, Chinese monolith Geely acquired a majority stake in Proton and Lotus. In case you forgot, Geely owns Volvo Cars, Polestar and electric car firm Zeekr, among other entities. Geely wields significant clout, which benefits Proton in research, development and platform and powertrain technologies.

Locally, however, the brand will need to overcome reservations around its longevity in the market. Former Proton owners and new customers would be justified in wondering whether the brand has what it takes to plant proper roots in the country.

Unlike the first time Proton entered our region, there is fierce rivalry, not just from established marques, but from emerging Chinese contenders. The likes of Haval, Chery and BAIC have released compelling products that consumers have rapidly accepted.

The X90 is a three-row sport-utility vehicle (SUV), but stylistically it appears more like a multipurpose vehicle, with its tall and upright stance. Styling is conservative, sober and generic from most angles. Not necessarily a bad thing. What seemed to intrigue observers the most was the Proton emblem: a scowling tiger. It looks like the mascot for a far more exotic brand.

Pricing for the X90 starts at R559,900 for the Standard, the Executive costs R589,900, the Premium goes for R644,900 and the Flagship grade we tested is R679,900. A five-year/unlimited mileage warranty is included, with service and maintenance plans optional.

Wagon-like rear houses third seating row.
Image: Supplied Wagon-like rear houses third seating row.

At this range, the Proton is thrust in the ambit of formidable alternatives. In the same bracket you could take your pick from a number of five-seater C-segment SUV options, such as the Kia Sportage or Toyota RAV4.

If three-row seating is non-negotiable, one could consider a Mahindra XUV 700 2.0T AX7 (R534,999) or Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace 1.4 TSI (R656,500). You could even get into the entry-level Toyota Fortuner for R673,100.

Proton is punting the mild hybrid technology of the X90. The range is powered by a 1.5l turbocharged petrol engine with three cylinders. It is a Volvo-sourced engine. The mild hybrid aspect of its powertrain is constituted by a 48V system. That makes a combined output of 140kW and 300Nm. Drive is to the front axle with transmission handled by a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

It seems a reasonable, complementary pairing on paper. On the road, the power source feels highly strung, with significant intervals of lag followed by excessive, noisy boost as the turbocharger spools. Getting up to momentum in the X90 is not a smooth, fluid affair, with the accelerator calibrated like an on-off switch. Nor is it as economical as you might think. Our tester showed an average consumption of 9.7l/100km. Proton claims 6.8l/100km.

The brake pedal, with its vague, spongy feel, did not inspire confidence. Its steering is light, which is well-suited to town manoeuvrability, but at freeway speeds the X90 does not impart a sure-footed sense. Ride quality lacks polish and the 19-inch alloys wrapped in 235/50 Davanti rubber seemed to amplify ruts and ripples in a way unbecoming of a family-size SUV.

Drive is to the front axle, with transmission handled by a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic.
Image: Supplied Drive is to the front axle, with transmission handled by a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic.

The on-road character of the Proton falls short, outgunned by more accomplished rivals from Germany, Japan and China. In dimensions, the X90 is a substantial vehicle with a 4,830mm length, 1,764mm height and wheelbase measuring 2,805mm. Ground clearance is 194mm. With the back row of seats folded, Proton claims a luggage capacity of 1,200l.

Visually, the cabin has a contemporary appearance with materials that seem durable, if not plush. Our test unit had a stale aroma rather than the distinctive new car pong expected of a model with less than 4,000km on the odometer.

Proton says the upholstery is of Nappa leather variety, but it seems more like leatherette. Infotainment is handled by a 12.3-inch central touchscreen which has a decent layout but is finnicky to use on the go, often unresponsive to input, requiring careful, firm prods to initiate certain functions.

Equipment highlights in the Flagship include a panoramic sunroof, ventilated front seats, 360° camera, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking. The entire range boasts six airbags and the model has a five-star ASEAN NCAP rating.

The X90 is by no means an awful product. But it is difficult to recommend, mindful of what could be had for similar money, while realistically contemplating the outlook, growth and scope for the brand locally.