What do you get when you cross a Mitsubishi Evo X with a tiny Malaysian 5 door hatchback? Something Awesome! Today, Stelvio Automotive takes a look at Proton and the pocket rocket looking to win the second tier of the WRC, the Iriz R5.

By Sean Smith

Back in 1989 Proton landed on British shores with the Saga, a “no thrills” 4 door saloon based on the 1983 Mitsubishi Lancer. It was incredibly basic even for the time; the coolest feature was debatably the square clock on the centre console. The cars were questionable on safety, initially quite slow, relatively bad to drive according to reviewers and seen as uncool to people who would prefer to spend 2 or 3 times more on a Ford or basic BMW of the day.

But! The car sold well. Proton would sell 141,209 cars across all its models in the UK until 2013 when they pulled out of the market. My dad had 2 of the Gen 1 Sagas and the 2nd one was red with a 1.5 litre Mitsubishi engine which made the 950kg car really fast and lively to drive due to its lack of weight (and/or safety features).

Regardless, the Saga and later models sold consistently in the UK throughout the 90s winning many ‘best value’ awards like Dacia do today, their cars were good enough and the economy was on their side where the price was attractive enough to buyers where they could overlook the slight drawbacks compared to more expensive rivals.

This success along with their growth globally allowed Proton to take some risks, 2 big ones in fact. The first was buying Lotus in 1996, a move which the company deserve huge credit for as Lotus may not exist today had it not been for the Malaysian money coming in allowing the company to build the Elise and all subsequent cars they’ve made over the subsequent 21 years.

The second was Proton’s rallying efforts. Initially they teamed up with Mitsubishi’s Ralliart division and in 2002 they won the WRC’s third division – WRC3 with the Proton PERT, a re-badged Mitsubishi Evo 5 which beat the Works Mitsubishi Evo 7s in the series. Later they entered their ground up designed Satria Neo with British partners Mellors Elliot Motorsports and achieved a dominant 1-2 championship finish in the 2011 Asia Pacific Rally Championship thrashing Mitsubishi and Subaru in the process.

Now they’re back again. Proton released images of the Iriz R5 WRC2 car this summer and has since been undergoing heavy testing programmes with the car. They’re again re-joining with Mellors Elliot Motorsports for their biggest motorsport venture to date and will be taking on the might of Volkswagen who are entering a full factory effort to stick it to the FIA who didn’t allow them to compete in the big class this year and also to gain good press after the diesel emissions scandal.

The Iriz is Proton’s current “B-segment” 4 door hatchback which sells well in the Asian markets and has been murmured to be coming to the UK replacing the old Savvy Proton sold in the early part of the 21st century.

The Iriz R5 made its public debut at Goodwood this year where it took on the rally course as part of its testing programme. The car initially looks sure footed over the terrain, unsurprising given the people running it and what’s for sure is that the 1.6ltr, turbocharged detuned Mitsubishi Evo X engine will pack plenty of punch against its opponents from VW and Citroën, the third confirmed works team in the category, Ford, Skoda and Hyundai being the other likely adversaries.

The Iriz has the advantage of being long and wide for a hatchback. The length should make the car predictable and easy to control plus it gives the team a lot of room to set up the car for all different stages of the series. The width stops it falling over in very basic terms; which is generally a positive point for any vehicle. Proton are clearly using slightly custom bodywork with heavily flared wheel arches and aerodynamic winglets, nonetheless the essence of the Iriz base car is clearly visible, more so than Hyundai’s i20 at least.

It would be a hard ask for Proton to win the series or possibly even stages first time out next year. The team has been out of action for 4 years due to them not having a car to race since the Satria Neo ceased production. Against the multi-billion pound companies they’ll be fighting there’s also little doubt Proton will have the smallest budget out there. But the company will undoubtedly be in it for the long term, especially now Proton have finalised their deal with Geely, China’s automotive giant who own Volvo who have acquired 49% of the company and 51% of Lotus.

Proton are currently evaluating drivers for their return year with Marcus Gronholm (2 time WRC champion) included in their testing programme along with potentially Ollie Mellors (below). News of the driver line up will emerge in the coming weeks and if the company get the right drivers to show what the Iriz R5 can do to match the confidence in the project shown from their partners, Proton could one day be back in UK showrooms as WRC2 World Champions.

And I’m telling you here and now I’d buy a road going version of the Iriz R5 straight away if it came to the UK and then subsequently spend all day embarrassing VW polo drivers just for the fun of it. 

Go Proton!!