First driving impressions of new Proton model!
Offering test-drives to the media prior to a new model’s launch is a normal practice as it allows publications and websites to write about the driving experience when they carry the story on the launch. That’s the time when public interest is very high and to be able to also read about how a model performs adds value to the reports.
Since the Exora project, Proton has also run a separate programme to get early feedback from some journalists to identify any areas that need to be quickly re-looked into. The initiative was started by the Group MD himself, Datuk Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamed Tahir (DSZ), who believes in interacting with the media and listening to what it has to say about the company and its products. It’s something that requires trust as the models tested are not launched yet and therefore pictures can’t be shown and certain information also needs to be kept under wraps. In fact, we might not even have been able to put out this report today but DSZ decided that there was not much harm in sharing our experiences now – but full pictures of the car can’t be shown at this time.
The model that we were invited to drive was the one which just about anyone who is interested in cars will know about – the successor to the Waja which is almost 10 years old now. It’s also no secret that this model – which goes by the codename of P3-90A – is adapted from the current Mitsubishi Lancer. After developing seven models on its own, Proton’s next model will use the design of another manufacturer which also happens to be its former partner, Mitsubishi Motors.
Far from signaling a change of mind about developing models in-house, this new move shows that Proton is making more rational decisions based on business considerations, rather than being obsessed with the ‘national thing’ and trying to always show that it can do everything itself. As a national car company, it has to also help the automotive industry advance but in certain aspects, decisions need to be made objectively and based on the business case. In the past, it seemed that costly decisions were made which were great for the national ego but not necessarily making business sense.
The reason why the P3-90A has not been developed in-house like the Waja is because the potential volume is likely to be small (under 2,000 units a month). Because it is a mass market player, Proton (like Perodua) needs very big volumes for each model in order to justify the investment needed to develop and make it. If the economies of scale are not there, then the model will either cost too much to sell or it has to be kept in production for a very long period. The latter is not a good idea and the former is a challenge in the very competitive market of today.
So Proton decided that since it does need to be represented in the segment, the smarter approach is to adapt a proven design developed by someone else. It costs less and allows the model to be in the showrooms faster. But why then was Proton willing to spend almost a billion ringgit on developing the Waja before but now says that its successor doesn’t justify that kind of investment? The explanation from DSZ: “When the Waja came into the market, the competition was different and it could have a bigger volume. Today, you see strong rivals from Korea and in the price segment we are targeting (under RM100,000), there is a lot of competition. So we are unlikely to be able to achieve the sort of numbers that were possible ten years ago and we made the business decision to go with this approach”.
He added that this kind of approach is nothing unusual and many other manufacturers also do it. You see Ford and Mazda doing it with the Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2; Nissan and Samsung Motors sharing models; and so on. In some cases, the companies that share models are in the same group (eg Nissan, Samsung and Renault are in an alliance) but there are also other cases where separate companies agree to share a model developed by one of the companies (eg Mitsubishi and Peugeot, and Toyota and Aston Martin). So critics who say it’s ‘shameful’ to take someone else’s model need to realize that even the global players do it. It’s good that Proton has done it too so that certain parties can no longer accuse Perodua of being just a ‘rebadge’ company – unless they continue to have double standards?
Proton's Group MD personally interacts with the media, hence the initiative to allow testing of pre-production models to get early feedback. He believes even bloggers can offer Proton useful comments rather than dismisses them as 'rubbish', contrasting the view that his predecessor had
We’ll tell you more about the P3-09A when it’s officially launched and full specs are available but for now, let’s move on to what it’s like behind the wheel. The cars were drove from KL to Awana in Genting Highlands (via the old Bentong road) were pre-production units, meaning that the finish did not reflect the final quality customers will get so we didn’t bother with looking for quality issues. Up to 60% of parts will be sourced locally within 12 months which helps get the cost down.
We were offered all the three variants that will be available: 1.8-litre with a CVT and with a 5-speed manual transmission, and a 2-litre with a CVT. The powertrains are supplied by MMC just like the Perdana was but even at this early stage, there are some design improvements to suit local conditions. However, the engineers told us that as far as engine tuning and transmission gearing is concerned, they are not supposed to alter anything. This is an issue which frustrated Proton before when it was taking powertrains from MMC and it could not tune engines for its own purpose. The ECU could not be touched, which led to Proton developing its own ECU and then its own engine.
However, the suspension has been worked on although initially, MMC was not agreeable about this. Nevertheless, after showing that they could tweak the suspension of the Lancer into something with a different character, the MMC engineers agreed that the P3-09A could have its own suspension settings. That our Proton engineers could impress them shows how far the company has come since its first effort with the Perdana V6 and Satria GTI. Those two models of the late 1990s were the first to get Lotus tuning and while other aspects of Proton models have been criticized over the years, the ride and handling has always been highly rated.
Using their 10+ years of experience in injecting Lotus DNA into Proton’s models, the engineers have given the P3-09A a different feel to the car. To some, this may be superior to the Lancer’s and these will be people who are more oriented towards sporty driving. There will also be some who like the Lancer’s feel which now seems to be more oriented towards comfort. But this is not to say the P3-09A is uncomfortable because the Lotus DNA still retains a reasonable level of ride comfort and for most people, this will be fine.
On the twisty old Bentong road (the section between the Bentong junction and the tunnel) and on the Genting road, it was very clear that the suspension settings are almost spot-on. There’s very good control and body-roll is kept in check, giving the driver a lot of confidence. There is only one standard tyre brand which Proton has chosen and it is said to have a special compound that improves wet grip.
Steering response was good but the 2-litre variant’s steering felt ‘looser’; with the 1.8 variant, there was a more definite feel of the road and more positive response to inputs. The engineers acknowledged this assessment and said that it has something to do with the 1.8 and 2-litre variants having basically the same set-up and specs.
The 2-litre engine performance is something which you can probably get an idea of if you read reports on the Lancer so we’ll talk about the 1.8-litre engine. Like the 2-litre unit, it is also a Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance (GEMA) all-aluminium powerplant that was jointly developed by MMC, Chrysler and Hyundai. The output is around 143 ps/177 Nm while the 2-litre version in the Lancer sold in Malaysia produces 155 ps/199 Nm. The exact specs will be available when the model is launched but since the powertrain is supplied from Japan, the output is unlikely to be different from that in Lancers having the same engine.
With the manual transmission, the P3-09A 1.8 is really fun to drive though that always seems to be the case when we get hold of a car with manual transmission – which are not many these days! The spread of gears is good and the gearbox was slick in operation. We drove the CVT version up Genting and with a full load of four on board, its performance was brisk, thanks to the CVT keeping the engine in its optimum operating range. Incidentally, the 2-litre version will have paddle shifts on the steering column.
Other aspects of the car will be described when we drive actual production units towards the end of this month. Suffice to say, the inside looks pretty much like the Lancer and it’s black in colour. Not having been developed by a Malaysian company, there is no teh tarik hook though! But one of the engineers said they’ll keep it in mind for the ‘phase 2 version’ which will see more customization of the model. That’s necessary if Proton wants to export it because MMC will be agreeable only if the Proton version looks different enough.
The current Mitsubishi Lancer from which Proton's successor for the Waja is adapted. Engine cover and steering wheel will, of course, have Proton's logo and the exterior will have significant cosmetic differences
We’re told that order-taking will start from tomorrow when the official name of the new model is announced. Proton is a bit conservative in its demand forecast but we think that the order bank could quickly go to a year’s waiting period. There was also the same reluctance to believe that there would be strong demand when the Perdana was launched in 1994 but when people knew it was based on a proven MMC design and cost a lot less than the Japanese rivals, the orders flooded in and stretched to a year. The word on the pricing is that you’ll be getting ‘a Civic or Corolla at Vios/City prices’.
The new model (which will be built at the Shah Alam plant, not Tg Malim) has a sound design with engineering already proven by the Lancer. And if you’re concerned about local quality, DSZ said that the ‘number of concerns per unit‘ has dropped from 4.1 with the Waja when it was launched to 0.31 for the Exora today. So Proton’s manufacturing and QC process itself is also of a higher standard now. If you want one, we strongly recommend that you get money ready for the deposit (said to be RM1,000) for this car when order-taking starts. The red colour looks great on the car (other choices are silver, white and black).
Click here to enter the movie contest and win exclusive prizes!
To locate a Proton dealer, click here for the Proton Edar website