PROTON'S launch of the GEN.2 early last month is more than a major engineering breakthrough for the national car manufacturer. It also marks the start of a long and arduous journey to prove its credibility in the international arena.
The GEN.2, fitted with Proton's own Campro engine using Lotus technology, ends nearly 20 years of dependence on Mitsubishi engines, which the first generation of Proton cars were fitted with.
With a styling leaning more to that of a Continental outfit, the GEN.2 received overwhelming response from the Malaysian public, and sales are set to hit the 8,000 mark very soon.
“Proton has already won half the battle with the introduction of GEN.2. They can win big here (with the GEN.2), but the real test is out there,” said an industry observer.
StarBiz took the GEN.2 for a short drive and found public interest and support for the car to be overwhelming, a reception almost similar to the first Saga launched back in 1985.
The public just loved the sporty design, a refreshing change from the box-like cars they has become familiar with in the entire 20 years of Proton's existence.
But where the Saga – and subsequently the Wira – were purchased mainly as a first car, the GEN.2 was purchased as a second or third car. The buyers put their money just on the car's good looks and trust in the first Malaysian-made engine.
But with sales in the local market stagnating (total industry volume is expected to stay at around 430,000 level in the next few years), Proton has to look beyond Malaysian shores to improve its sales figures, and the GEN.2 is the perfect candidate to help it achieve the objective.
At home, Proton has to fight the war on two fronts, the stagnating sales and fierce competition from South Korean marques like the Hyundai and Kia which have steadily encroached into Proton's territory.
And it is addressing these problems with some counter measures.
Proton's next agenda, a company official said, would be to focus on brand building and marketing to spur demand for the national makes overseas.
Perhaps, Proton can just emulate the strategies used by its South Korean competitors to break into new markets.
In Malaysia, Hyundai and Kia both found strong local partners to assemble and distribute their cars, a move that qualified them for special status car companies – and with some incentives to boot.
The local partners, the Berjaya and Naza groups, are strong corporate entities that have proven track records.
Hyundai also secured the help of Oriental group, which through subsidiary Kah Motor Companies Sdn Bhd helped to sell thousands of Honda cars to Malaysian customers before the distributorship rights were given to the DRB-Hicom group.
The Oriental touch is evident in Hyundai, where sales are expected to quadruple to 12,000 units from 3,000 recorded last year.
Kia is another success story in Malaysia. By associating itself with the upmarket image of the Naza group, Kia makes managed to secure a good rating from Malaysian buyers after overcoming initial resistance.
As a result, South Korean cars, initially thought to be inferior to other makes, such as Japanese and Continental, is now being similarly regarded as the others.
And back to the GEN.2. The car should be able to steer the buyers back to Proton with its stylish design, classy interior and superb handling.
It should lead Proton to the next stage of revolution - conquering the world.