The Saga and its variants contribute to most of Proton's sales and revenues since its introduction. For nearly 22 years, the first-generation Saga is the longest surviving Proton model to date, ahead of Proton's mid-size car, the Perdana. The original Saga model was based on the 1983 Mitsubishi Lancer Fiore in conjunction with the agreement with Mitsubishi to produce Malaysia's own national car. In 2008, a successor designed in-house by Proton was launched under the new management and using theProton Savvy platform to cut development cost. In August of that year, the 3 millionth car produced by Proton was a second generation Proton Saga.
First generation (1985–2008)
The Proton Saga was launched in September 1985 by Malaysia's then Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad. Before the production of Proton Saga, a contest was held to choose the name of the first national car, and the name Saga was chosen from the winner of the contest, Ismail Jaafar, a retired military soldier. When asked why he chose this particular name, he replied as "saga" (Abrus precatorius) is a type of soft, fragile but productive seed commonly found in Malaysia, and joked that the Proton Saga 1.3 litre engine "is as strong as the saga seed".
The first known Proton Saga to roll off the production line was presented to the Malaysian National Museum as a symbol of the beginning of the Malaysian automotive industry. Tun Dr. Mahathir also drove a prototype Proton Saga fitted with a 4G63 2.0L engine and a Jalur Gemilang across the Penang Bridge and to Penang Airport during the opening ceremony of the bridge on 14 September 1985.
Initially, Saga supplies were low, with just 700 vehicles produced in time for the launch. The cars sold quickly, and Proton was not able to meet public demand. It was not until July 1986 when Proton gained a majority market share, after production had increased.
Once production had been brought up to speed, the Proton Saga captured 73% of the Malaysian passenger car market. The success of the Saga is attributed to its low price (cheaper than any other car on the Malaysian market) and its appeal to Malaysian patriotism.
In 1986 Proton initiated an ill-fated attempt to sell the Saga in the United States with the help of American automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, brainchild of Proton, had been impressed by Bricklin, who had been advised to work with Proton by former U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who had previously taught Mohamad at Harvard University. Soon after the first Sagas had been imported into the United States, Bricklin revealed that he had not gained permission from authorities and sold the import company shortly after. The result was a major financial loss for Proton.
Early Saga models were powered by SOHC 8-valve 4-cylinder petrol engines sourced from Mitsubishi, available in both 1.3- and 1.5-litre displacements. Both engines were available with a 5-speed manual transmission, but a 3-speed Mitsubishi Tri-matic automatic was available with the 1.5-liter engine in 1987.
The Saga was originally offered as a 4-door saloon, followed by the addition of a hatchback variant, introduced in 1988 as the Proton Knight and was later known as Saga Aeroback. The Proton Knight was designed for the European market as the hatchback was more popular in United Kingdom.
In 1989, Proton sold the Saga in the United Kingdom with the slogan Japanese Technology + Malaysian Style = Proton. Since then, United Kingdom contributes most of Proton's export sales. The Saga name was not used due to the word's affiliation with the elderly holiday package agency. Instead, it was simply known as the Proton MPI and was offered with a choice of a 1.3 or 1.5 liter engine. The UK models reverted to the dashboard used in the Mitsubishi Lancer, complete with HVAC controls not found in the domestic model.
In 1990, the line-up was revised with the introduction of 12-valve Megavalve engines, which increased power ratings to 75 bhp (56 kW) (from the original 70.5 bhp (53 kW) in the former 8-valve (Magma) version) for the 1.3-litre engine, and 90 bhp (67 kW) for the 1.5-litre engine. On domestic models, the Saga also gained the "Megavalve" moniker. Minor exterior modifications included a new grill and wraparound black trim pieces. In addition, rear seat belts and a third brake light were fitted as standard.