Malaysian marque Proton isn't the oldest vehicle manufacturer to ever grace the South African market segment after having been on sale locally since 2005. That was until 2015, however, when it exited the market, citing market expectations and a lack of solid domestic business partners as the reasons for its departure.
Not even the sporty-looking, hatchback Gen2 and rally-styled Satria Neo models could save the marque from exiting the market, sadly. In 2017, Proton sold a 49.9% stake to Geely, a move that saw the birth of the X70 and X50 models, which are rebadged Geely Boyue and Binyue variants from China, respectively. Now distributed locally by CMH, it returns to the local shores fully revamped with two new cars; the X50 and X70 models. We recently spent time at the helm of the former in Premium guise.
First impressions? Well, there's just something about Chinese products; they are filled to the brim with impressive technologies and adequate quality. Many will likely agree that Chinese (I say Chinese because it's a rebadged Binyue) manufacturers have been getting almost everything right in terms of design, and the X50 is no exception.
It's stunning, thanks to an aggressive front fascia further complemented by a lovely rear end fitted with four stylish exhaust tailpipes. Sadly, these pipes are merely suited for aesthetic purposes since the soundtrack doesn't match the aggressive placement.
Besides the menacing exterior look, the quality inside is one of the Proton X50's most appealing aspects, courtesy of superb build quality, a steering wheel with a tactile feel, plus solid panels. There are hard plastics in various touch points, sure, but it doesn't detract from the vehicle's overall quality.
As the range-topping model, the X50 Premium has a dual-tone interior with nicely stitched leatherette-upholstered seats, a six-way adjustable driver seat, a panoramic roof, and a silver finish that adds plushness. A 10" touchscreen infotainment system proves very simplistic to use, yet it lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Instead, it uses a different application called QDlink, which was a bit laggy on the output front.
Apart from that, we laud Proton for sticking to physical buttons for volume and climate controls. The space inside isn't something to complain about in the X50, but we would have loved additional storage pockets for water bottles and other sizeable items. On the other hand, the boot space is generous and measures a good 330 litres, enough to gulp sizeable luggage bags for our trip down to Bushbuckridge.
Settling under the X50's bonnet is a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that delivers 130 kW and 255 Nm to the front wheels via a 7-speed DCT transmission. A setup that comfortably delivers linear acceleration, thus making the X50 a highway cruiser of note.
For those seeking a spirited driving experience, there is a Sport mode that sharpens the throttle. It is only ideal during overtaking maneuvres, with most of our driving to Mpumalanga executed in the Eco and Normal modes. This proved suitable thanks to brisk acceleration, a responsive gearbox, and a suspension setup that dishes out plenty of confidence.
As for the chassis, it delivers a plush ride while also making sure not to provoke big emotions, even when driving on bumpy roads.
This is where things take a toll, and it's a serious one. For example, the X50 is a thirsty cat; if you are looking for something frugal, this is not it. It returned an average of 10.2l/100 km on the combined cycle, and while we were hoping to get the figures down to the claimed 6.4-litres on the open road, the lowest we could get was 9.7l/100 km.
Priced at R579,900, the Proton X50 comes standard with a host of safety features and driver-assist systems. It may be loaded with tech, but it's not yet perfect, with wrinkles in the adaptive cruise control department as it would brake abruptly for no apparent reason once engaged. Also, the blind spot monitoring system tends to malfunction when it rains.
Forget the handsome looks, a range of fantastic safety features and unreasonable fuel economy; the best-selling point of the Proton X50 lies in how it goes about its business, and it checks all the required boxes in that instance.
If the flaws mentioned above are something you can live with, the Proton X50 makes a strong competitor in its segment. It will be interesting to see how it fares on the sales charts compared to some well-established stalwarts in the B-SUV segment, including some other Chinese offerings.