I had been doing some reading up on Lotus Cars recently. Lotus Cars is owned by DRB-Hicom through Proton, the Malaysian car company. Both car companies are actually in a bit of trouble owning to low sales volumes with Proton being second in the Malaysian passenger vehicle sales charts for the past two years or so. Assembler and re-badge experts Perodua have taken over the top spot in passenger car sales in Malaysia and its no question that Malaysians seem to like the brand more these days. Tell me how many of the newly launched Proton Iriz (which in 1.6liter form is not too bad) you see on the roads today compared to the newly launched Perodua Axia (which is the best value for money car you can buy these days with the puny Ringgit). Couple this with the fact that Malaysian banks seem to be tightening down on car loans also do not auger well with Proton who according to my sources have about 50% of customer car loan applications rejected or turned down. Not the fault of Proton, but this bites nonetheless.
Anyway, Lotus is slightly better. By slightly better this means selling slightly more than 1,000 cars for the first half of this year. 1,114 units to be exact and far better than the 749 units sold during the same period last year. Of course this is a blip in Proton’s scale of things but not to a specialty manufacturer like Lotus. Of course, one has to remember the ex-CEO Dany Bahar’s plan to take Proton to the stratosphere. That called for six different sports cars at one go and most ‘realists’ would say that how the heck can Lotus come up with that on a limited amout of funds (they are not Ferrari, Porsche or even Mercedes Benz). Then when you start calculating, Lotus would need to sell 50,000 units a year in order for such a number of sports cars to be realised before they would have any reasonable economics of scale. I suppose the chap just wanted the free private jets to and from F1 races as well as the free housing and other fringe benefits of being CEO.
Lotus these days are sensible. I read the recent Autocar article about the interview it conducted with current CEO Jean Mark-Gales. In it he mentioned that Lotus is looking at a sensible figure of 10,000 cars yearly if it follows the Porsche business plan and starts building four-door cars. It does make sense as the Panamera and the Cayenne sells like crazy. In the article it also mentioned that Lotus may be looking at a SUV for the South-East Asian market where demand is at its greatest. S.E.A means Malaysia, no doubt. So I can safely say that we’re going to see a Lotus SUV soon. I also have a hunch that Proton may be in collaboration too. But I suppose this is a few years away and in the meantime, Proton is bleeding.
I’ve always thought that Proton isn’t utilising Lotus the way it should or could for the Malaysian market. Most of us regular Joes are not feeling the fruits of such a tie-up. Lotus cars is actually one heck of a company. The heritage the brand has is almost better than some out of the blue luxury brand created by the Japanese like Lexus or Infiniti. Lotus has real F1 heritage, road racing heritage, proper sports car heritage and don’t forget, the James Bond link too. So what have most Malaysians got out of the deal? A ‘Tuned by Lotus’ badge on the rump of the Proton Satria GTI and the Suprima S at the most. Yes there was some suspension tuning done by the chaps at Hethel but I can bet you it was tiny. I remember being in a Chevrolet Optra which had suspension tuning by Lotus and it rode better than the claimed to be tuned by Lotus Proton Waja. Proton were cheapskates in my opinion. Not enough of Lotus in their cars.
Of course then they did come up with a RM120,000 Lotus Satria Neo which actually had the privilege of being badged a Lotus instead of a Proton. In fact the car is registered with the JPJ as a Lotus. Enough said. But the thing about that car was that it was based on a car that couldnt fit tall people, had stupid ergonomics, cheapo plastic and a serious lack of power for something to be sold in the mid-2000s onwards.
What needs to be done to boost the image if not the sales for Proton (and to some part Lotus) is this…….
In order to increase the image of Proton and Lotus to a point a new collaboration based on a Proton should be done for the Malaysian market only. Why so? This is just a stop gap car for Lotus cars but an image builder for Proton. You see, I remember discussing the point of Proton coming up with a new car brand like Lexus or Infiniti so that Proton can sell cars away from the stigma that affects its cars.
Actually the first thing is to actually get the cars built right in the first place but these days, with a serious lack of image, even a well built Proton will not make sales numbers. So Proton needs a better image or brand and this is where Lotus comes in.
What they need to do is forget about all that racing car nonsense that lightness is the only thing that needs to be added to Lotus cars. It works in Britain and Europe where cars aren’t heavily taxed. Have you ever tried getting into an entry level Lotus Elise or Exige if you are a chubby bloke? You can’t unless you are a flexible chubby bloke. I tried a couple of times and I usually sprain something or tear my pants. The only Lotus from the current line-up that fits me well is the Evora and it is the same price as a Porsche Cayman. And then when you sit inside a Cayman after an Evora you think that the interior of the Cayman came from heaven whereas the interior of the Evora was built by the foreign worker employed to build a public toilet. I mean honestly, we Asians have to spend an obscene amount of money to buy a sports car and we do not want to be a contortionist or find ourselves in a budget hotel instead of a room in the Hilton. And this is why Lotus fails to sell here in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere around Asia. We’d rather buy luxury over lightness if it costs over RM250,000. Don’t tell me I am wrong because I am not. So Lotus should forget most of the lightness part in some of its cars in order to gain more sales. Really.
So what we need is a luxury Lotus with the help of Proton or vice versa. This will boost sales and image of both. Lotus Proton needs a Malaysia only car that is luxurious, fast enough and priced reasonably enough. Lightness need not be a key figure here as if we take out a few pages from Lotus’ recent history, it can be done.
I remember casting my eyes on something called the Lotus Carlton in the mid 1990s here in Kuala Lumpur. The 1990-1992 Lotus Carlton or in mainland Europe, the Lotus Omega and sometimes called the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton in the UK was an Opel Omega / Vauxhall Carlton upgraded by Lotus Cars to be a 177mph (285km/h) sports sedan with a 0-100kmh time of around 5.2 seconds. It had a 3.6liter turbocharged engine pumping out 377bhp and over 568Nm torque. It is considered a proper Lotus and was given a type designation — Type 104. The external differences were minimal with the addition of a rear spoiler, vents on the bonnet, Lotus badges on the front wings and bootlid, a bodykit and considerably wider wheel arches distinguishing it from a standard Carlton (shown below). Note that there wasn’t an ounce of ‘lightness’ built into that Opel/Vauxhall. Lotus did up the engine, suspension and some bodywork. What lightness? It was a bahn-stormer and it was properly fast for its day and even to this day.
Prior to this there was a ‘Hot Hatch’ that used the Lotus name too. It was the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus which was produced for about two years or so from 1979 to 1981. Based on the Chrysler Sunbeam compact hatchback, it had a 150bhp /203Nm 2.2 liter 4 cylinder engine powering the rear wheels (the Sunbeam was a rwd car) and was used in rallys of the period. It was actually quite good and actually won the manufacturer’s title in the WRC for Talbot. What that car basically was are larger wheels and tyres, a larger engine, transmission and stiffer suspension compared to the regular Sunbeam. Again. What actual lightness did Lotus instill in a bread and butter hatchback? Not much actually. Engine tuning, suspension tuning and some bodywork. What lightness? Sometimes I think there is too much emphasis on lightness when in actual fact trimmings and luxury fittings are what sells.
That bit was also some thought on Lotus, but for Proton the two cars mentioned above actually showed what a collaboration can achieve. Why can’t Lotus and Proton come up with one based on either the Proton Suprima S or even a Proton Perdana (aka previous gen Honda Accord since it now has some rights to produce it in a facelifted rebranded form?).
I imagine a Proton Lotus Suprima S in the mould of the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus with an upgraded 1.6 turbocharged engine with at least 200bhp / 300Nm torque, sportier suspension and a heck of an aggressive bodykit – I’d like Lancia Integrale arches, a fully vented bonnet and a nice whaletail of a rear roof spoiler please, and with proper Recaro seats inside. Produce a limited run of say 5,000 units for some economics of scale and sell it for about RM100,000-110,000. It may sell like crazy. If everything is sorted out, there could be punters from UK and Japan willing to export the cars over there as collectors items.
I also imagine a Lotus Perdana 2.4liter with at least 200bhp for around RM170,000. Make it like the Lotus Carlton, wide arches, nice bodykit, luxury inside and some extra go (not much so that the car stays sensibly priced). This not so much as Proton may need Honda approval to go ahead with such a plan. But not with the Suprima S. That is totally achievable. RM20,000 over the price of the current Suprima S with a proper Lotus badge in place of the Proton Tiger would make it sell.
What you get is a fantastic Proton Lotus and affordable sporting cars for Malaysians. With a proper heritage filled brand name to boot. Some say that this will dilute the Lotus brand. Honestly what is there to dilute in the first place? Lotus sells 2,000 cars per year if they are lucky and hardly any here in Malaysia. What is there to dilute? If you keep the sales of the Lotus Proton exclusively here in Malaysia what actual dilution you think is being done? Not much I believe. Proton gets a better name (and not some R3 branded nonsense – it does not seem to be working does it?) and Lotus gets extra sales volume and cash from some development work as well as use of its Lotus trademark. It could use this extra profit to make its revival plan even greater.
I think this is the short term way to go for both Proton and Lotus. One needs a better and bigger name, one needs more sales. Do it properly, both won’t suffer. But please make sure that build quality does not suffer. Then both will crash and burn like crazy. I think in this tough and trying times, this branding exercise could be an answer for the short term.
And what of Proton’s long term plans? That folks, is a tale for another day.