Read the full news by Hezeri Samsuri from CBT (Cars, Bikes & Trucks) below.
BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD FOR PROTON.
THE first time we knew Proton was in safe hands was when we attended the company’s Quality Campaign in 2006, a few months after Datuk Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamed Tahir was appointed as the Group Managing Director for the company.
For the first time, we could see how the factory workers were so engrossed in the speech of their MD. And for the first time too, we heard Syed Zainal giving a speech. So touching were his words, even we strived to work hard too.
Fast forward to 2010 and Proton has changed a lot under his supervision. Obviously, his people skill is complemented by his engineering know-how and also his experience working with Perodua, being trained by the Japanese.
Cars, Bikes & Trucks sat down with him last Monday in an exclusive meeting and Syed Zainal was surprisingly very relaxed in discussing some of the development that the company is working on.
Syed Zainal confirmed that Proton is hot on the heels of this technology.
“This is not new, we have announced this a few years ago and currently, we are still open to any hybrid technologies,” he said.
Officially, Lotus is Proton’s working partner in this project but Proton is also having talks with other OEMs like Bosh. Battery partners too are being looked into, and the list covers LG and Hitachi. With Lotus, Proton is trying out hybrid technology from Frazer-Nash Research (FNR).
When quizzed about FNR’s unproven technology, Syed Zainal replied that they have thought of adapting a proven technology from an existing car model, but he explained that not many want to provide the technology and platform easily, especially when Proton will be their competitor.
Syed Zainal, however, is happy with the current technologies Proton is using.
“In fact, one of the four running prototypes is giving better fuel mileage than the Prius,” he said.
Of course there are still other factors to cover (safety, practicality, driver interface, battery price) and that figure might not make it to the production car, but at least we are heading towards the right direction,” he said.
The latest news is that Proton will soon release 50 to 150 units of hybrid vehicles to various government ministries around the Putrajaya and Cyberjaya area as part of its research project. These cars will have a satellite uplink and will provide Proton with live data, perfect to speed up its R&D process.
“We target our hybrid car will be launched earliest next year,” Syed Zainal concluded.
Green technology incentives
Syed Zainal believes that in order to spur the market growth in hybrid or electric vehicles, some incentives should be given by the government.
“Nobody will want to pay extra, so incentives should be placed initially to kick off the market,” he said.
He pointed out that for hybrids, excise duties could perhaps be reduced as well as incentives either in cash or other forms be given for purchasers to go green.
“There are many ways to do this, like congestion tax or even insurance. People need to be given something in return for buying the hybrids or electric cars,” he suggested.
New engine development
According to Syed Zainal, this is another important issue as its current Campro engine is no longer valid after 2013.
“Emission control will be its biggest problem and we will need a new family engine to last for another 10 years or so,” he said.
He explained that Proton’s new CFE (Campro Fuel Efficient) engine will be out by early next year.
“This new engine will be offered in our high-end models like the Exora, the current Persona and its replacement and may be in the Satria Neo too,” he said.
According to him, the CFE engine boasts a turbocharging unit, coupled to a new IAFM plus and a direct injection unit.
“Initially we wanted a 2-litre engine but the trend now is downsizing the capacity. The Campro CFE proves that it is doable – we have increased power and fuel economy while maintaining the engine capacity,” he said.
Syed Zainal also confirmed that Proton will soon cease using Mitsubishi’s gearboxes.
“We will use Getrag for manual transmission and a CVT system by Punch Motive (formerly the Belgian arm for ZF),” he said.
There was another surprise from Syed Zainal when he announced that Proton will decide this year whether to come out with their own family of new engines, or to work together with their new global partner.
“The new engines will be ready for production by 2014,” he said.
New global partner
With Volkswagen out of the picture, Proton is free to roam and find a new and perhaps better partner.
Syed Zainal, however, refused to delve deeper, but confirmed that Proton is in serious discussions with an European player, an emerging brand.
“It seems that this company needs a strong foothold in Asean and we can provide that. They are also able to help us in the European market, plus may be in the American market too,” he said.
The proposed partnership is expected to be involved in platform sharing, especially with the Emas Concept car.
“They are interested in the Emas because they can come out with their own hybrid mini car based on the same platform. Our plan is to extract three models from the same Emas platform, one each for Proton, Lotus and this new partner,” he divulged.
Proton is also hoping to get some technical collaboration with this new partner, especially on its high-end diesel engines and the latest petrol engines using electro-hydraulic valve actuators.
Proton has tried many times to go global but the result can be politely considered as unsatisfactory.
Syed Zainal has made known that Proton will have five strong key markets globally.
“We have five key markets – Malaysia, Asean, China, Iran and India. Our project in Iran is 80 per cent complete while our office in India will soon be up and running,” he said.
“Everything will be assembled locally there. CKD market is the only way to go but the trick will be to know the degree of localisation that we need to do to make it cost effective and viable.”
New Perdana and SUV
Syed Zainal confirmed that the government ministries will soon be getting a new Perdana to replace the current model.
“This is a niche market and it does not justify us spending hundreds of millions to develop one,” leaked Syed Zainal.
He revealed that Proton will import one model from Japan, rebadge it into a Proton and make it available only to government ministries.
It is understood that the new Perdana will sport two engine capacities – 2-litre and 2.4-litre models. It is based on a Japanese D-segment car which is also sold in Australia.
There is also high probability that the car will be made available to the domestic market if there is strong demand.
Our source also informed us that if Proton does not come up with a replacement soon enough, DRB-Hicom will be glad to offer the Honda vehicles as the government official cars, opening the floodgates to other brands as well in the future.
As for the SUV, Syed Zainal said this is where Proton will have to be creative to survive.
“There is no point for us to spend money on developing one as the market will not be too big to support it. Fortunately, Youngman of China has appointed us to develop a small SUV for them based on our current platform and engine,” he said.
“We saw the outcome and we ourselves got excited. It is highly possible that we would buy the design from Youngman and use it for our own SUV. After all, it is our platform and our engine while Youngman has paid for its development.”
Syed Zainal said the SUV will be the size of the Nissan Qashqai/Dualis or Peugeot 3008, basically a soft roader to run around town rather than the jungle.
“We have identified that there is market for the this SUV in the Middle East,” he added.
In the near future, however, Proton will also launch its new sedan which it is collaborating with Mitsubishi.
“I think by now, everybody knows which model we are talking about,” he grinned.
Consolidation of local companies
A month ago, Malaysia was struck by the idea of consolidating the local automotive industry, a move which Syed Zainal believes will benefit the whole nation.
He believes that MITI, the agency tasked with looking in this matter, is moving ahead with the planning.
“It’s a question of better now than never,” he quipped.
Syed Zainal explained that the two brands will remain in existence, but the first focus should be given to component sharing to acquire chear parts cheaper. Later on, it can even go to product or platform sharing,
“It is being done by many other global players, why not here in Malaysia?” he asked.
Proton and Perodua can help fill up each other’s void in the market segment and perhaps a holding company can be created to even export these cars to foreign markets.
“Of course only MITI or the government can do this. They have done it with financial institutions by limiting the number of banks and it was a success. To liberalise the market, consolidation can provide a stronger platform for the nation,” he said.
Having foreigners in the company
We have received questions as to why Proton is employing foreigners. Are the locals not good enough?
Syed Zainal said Proton has to be practical.
“We need people who are experienced in export. No local company has ever exported huge number of vehicles, hence we took in experienced foreigners on contract basis to train our locals. The same goes to our quality department too. These are all proven people and hiring them is saving us a lot of money,” he said.
An interesting question, but the truth is, handling politicians is a much needed skill as the head of Proton.
“Proton advocates transparency and consistency. When we need to terminate vendors, we explain in a transparent manner the quality that each vendor needs to surpass. This benchmarking is also consistent,” he said.
He said the company has an annual session with the backbenchers, to explain to them that certain measures must be taken to help Proton move forward.
“Praise to God, they understand the need and that is how we get along,” he said.
Lotus and Proton
Syed Zainal is adamant that Lotus should be kept under Proton.
“We are using the brand to penetrate into a few markets, like China and soon, India,” he blurted out in defence.
He told us to be patient and wait for the coming Paris Motor Show.
“Lotus will have new products, and they will be revealed in the motor show,” he revealed.
Syed Zainal also spilled out that Toyota will soon make an announcement that the Japanese company will be having more technical collaboration with Lotus in the near future, a very important milestone indeed for the English firm.
“We are also thinking of combining the engineering companies together, which means Proton’s engineering firm and the Lotus engineering company will be merged. This will give the new company a stronger portfolio,” he said.
The biggest news to us is that Syed Zainal toyed around with the idea of having a sub-brand under Lotus.
“There is a gap between Proton and Lotus, and a new sub-brand can certainly benefit both companies. Lotus can work on our future production models and have a more pedestrian offerings to the market,” he pointed out.
CBT believes that Syed Zainal and his team have the proper ideas to ensure that the brand will still be viable in the future.
Accepting that the market needs to be liberated is a good sign, and we hope the government will not be too slow in allowing Proton to really compete in the free world.
By Hezeri Samsuri