Proton Eyes the Future
For a relatively small regional car manufacturer, the development of new marques to compete with the mega automakers in the rest of the world is an expensive business. Proton Holdings has already committed a whopping RM3.8 billion in investments up until 2017 to achieve its turnaround plan and remain competitive. This is a sizeable investment by anyone’s standards and testament to the confidence that the new owners have in Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional, which is of course where we get the name PROTON.
The national carmaker, which is now owned by DRB-Hicom Holdings, has been rumoured to have approached both the International Trade Ministry and Petronas, but sources say both have declined to come to their aid; a strange decision perhaps when you consider that the British government has just given a GBP10 million grant to the Proton subsidiary, Lotus. Proton is seeking fresh funding to help it execute its turnaround plan, a move that will see it bring in fresh models, including electric and hybrid vehicles.
Currently, Proton has about 21% of the Malaysian new car market and is set to launch its global small car by June of this year, which it is hoped will give them greater stamina than they experienced with the Saga SV. The longer term plan is a bit more ambitious, with a target of selling some 350 000 cars per year by 2018. Many, however, are doubting the ability of Proton to compete with the liberalisation of the car industry set to intensify competition in the country under the latest Malaysian National Automotive Policy (NAP).
It is no secret that the Proton-owned British sports car manufacturer, Lotus, has been very active in the EV sector of the market. The early Tesla, Fisker and even Detroit Electric were based on Lotus models. The Lotus has a bonded aluminium chassis that is spectacularly light by modern standards, strong and rigid with a large engine bay where you can fit all manner of engines or batteries (read also Behold The Nemesis).
The stunning Infiniti Emerg-E (pictured above) that stole the show at the Geneva Motor Show was in fact a Lotus Evora 414E in disguise. Billed as a range-extender sports car from Nissan’s posh side, it offers 402bhp from a pair of electric motors, and packs a range-extending 1.2 litre 3-cylinder engine; it was in fact a re-skinned Evora 414E. The original Lotus Evora 414E that was shown at the Geneva Motor Show more than three years ago has not gone into production, yet the emergence of the Emerg-E would indicate that perhaps Lotus are getting close to it.
The Evora 414E is now undergoing durability and dynamic testing at Hethel, and looks very promising as a future Lotus production car, albeit a bit of a niche one. Lotus is currently working on a number of changes to the 414E, which can make 0 to 100kph in a mere 4.4 seconds, with a top speed of about 220kph. These changes include an artificial gear change programme to simulate ‘proper’ driving and a super charger for the 3-pot range-extender engine to give increased performance, and new developments like the improved synchronous axial flux drive motors (are we going back to the future?) that have improved the vehicles torque output accuracy massively.
It is not clear if or when and how we may see some technology sharing from Lotus to Proton, but we have previously seen many Lotus innovations appear on Proton vehicles, so we can only assume that there are plans for Proton to ‘borrow’ the technology from their subsidiary and go into the EV/hybrid sector in earnest. We certainly hope so.
Auto manufacturing brings jobs and growth, and are needed in all major economies. This was a part of the original vision that created Proton back in the 1980s. Hopefully the Malaysian government will learn from the JLR/Tata love affair in which the right investment in the right people has taken a moribund debt-ridden joke of a car company that it was to being a world beating resurgent force.
Is the National Automotive Policy bad news for Proton?
Whenever you read any articles about Proton, everyone seems to think that the recent Malaysian NAP will be the death knell for the car company that was once the pride of Malaysia. The reality is that the NAP is more a bane for the hybrid and EV vehicles that are not locally assembled as they will no longer be tax exempted and thus revert to their previous prices.
Not surprisingly, six of the seven hybrid car players were unhappy that the only one that seemed to benefit is our friends over at DRB-Hicom who are the only Malaysian assembler of hybrids – the Honda Jazz, to be specific. The other players are all importing Complete Built Up (CBU) units and will once again be subject to the full 272% effective tax rate.
Thus, vehicles like the Prius, the class winning hybrid, will go from USD43 000 to USD54 000 (approximate) and the Audi A6 hybrid will go from USD87 000 to USD109 000 (approximate). None of the other manufacturers have any plans to commence production in Malaysia and BMW has even said they will not market some of their EVs in the territory, so it leaves the field pretty clear for DRB and Honda who can produce about 50 000 cars per year in their Malacca factory.
image: Top Gear, lotuscars.com