Firmly set in the number one spot when it comes to sheer vehicle volume in Malaysia, Perodua has helped mobilise the population like no other automaker. Proton, for their efforts, played an undeniably pivotal role in transforming the country into one that placed the car at the centre of our lives.
The dynamics have definitely shifted just in the past few years. In 2021, Proton is no longer the independent firm it once was with Chinese automaker Geely having a sizeable say in their future plans. Though they have veered away from in-house efforts and cars that are ‘totally’ Malaysian, this tie-up means their future looks brighter than ever.
Two of the newest Proton models, the X70 and X50 have singlehandedly transformed their standing in sales, even if does mean a return to badge-engineering like those early days with Mitsubishi, making their operation - as it stands now - quite similar to that other national automaker.
Meanwhile, Perodua is pretty much playing the same game they always have been, leveraging the local supply chain and workforce in tandem with the relationship they have with Toyota subsidiary Daihatsu to consistently roll out practical, highly functional cars that are high in value at a great affordable price.
They’ve also always managed to stay out of each other’s way in terms of vehicle sizes and price points, but not by much. Certain B-segment models now have overlapping customer bases such as the Proton Saga and Perodua Myvi or Bezza while a small but noticeable price gulf separates the Ativa and X50.
This is a longstanding coexistence strategy, helping the two brands thrive in different spaces and, for better or worse, dominate the automotive landscape in Malaysia to the detriment of foreign brands. However, this relatively equal standing could be set to change with the advent of electrification.
Put simply, Perodua doesn’t have much up their sleeves when it comes to hybrids and EVs. And that’s because Daihatsu doesn’t have much up their sleeves. And that’s because Toyota doesn’t….oh wait, actually they do have quite a long history of (parallel) hybrids. They're one of the pioneers in the category, in fact, and are doubling-down on it each year.
However, they have always been hesitant to commit to fully electric or even plug-in hybrid vehicles. Try naming me a current production Toyota or Lexus PHEV or full EV - you’ll fit the count onto one hand.
As unenthusiastic as they might be about full-on electrification, they certainly are preparing for it. Toyota has baked in support for electric powertrains when designing their TNGA platform that currently underpins everything from the GR Yaris to the RAV4, and this just-in-case approach has trickled into Daihatsu’s DNGA as well.
That said, neither Perodua nor Daihatsu have any real reason to aggressively pursue electrified vehicles at the moment. Given the current cost of the technology, its implementation, and mass-producing a fully or partially electric powertrain would likely spike the prices of their cars well beyond what either brand’s customers are comfortable with paying.
Furthermore, the more medium-to-long term benefits such as running costs do not seem justifiable as their cars are already very economical on fuel and are easy to maintain. No matter where you look, the number of publicly available charging stations are still much too few and scattered, adding to the complexity of ownership while limiting a driver's freedom of movement.
The reality is that we’re at least a good decade away from EV technology and infrastructure getting to a point where mass adoption becomes likely, and that’s a very optimistic prediction centred on wealthier first world countries.
The phasing out of combustion-powered cars will take a much longer time in developing nations, Malaysia included, and even that isn’t a guarantee as progress continues on the development of synthetic fuels that are much cleaner for the environment and fully backwards compatible with cars that need petrol or diesel to run. While fossil fuel is dwindling, ICE cars have legitimate staying power.
Until the majority of the world moves on from internal combustion, there won’t be any pressing motivation for Daihatsu or Perodua to start doing things differently. That’s not to say that their newer cars will be totally void of electrified elements, though. Quite the contrary.
In the coming years, we will likely see a large portion of their cars start to include mild-hybrid features such as a higher capacity electrical architecture and an electric generator in place of a conventional starter motor. In addition to supporting idle stop-start, the system will be able to harvest energy from heat and braking to feed back into the driveline, improving fuel economy.
Proton, on the other hand, could need a more robust electrification plan to remain competitive within the decade, especially as we now know their aspirations include a larger focus on export markets and becoming a global brand.
Fortunately, with Geely on their side, they are more than capable of delivering plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars to market (not necessarily in Malaysia). At this point, it's just low-hanging fruit and just a matter of how and when not if.
Among other avenues, all they would need to do is tap into the vast reservoir of EV tech already being deployed in Volvos, an automaker that is not only selling their own fully electric vehicles (with more on the way) in the form of the XC40 Recharge, C40 Recharge, and by extension, the Polestar 2, but has committed to becoming a "fully electric car company" by 2030. The Swedes also seem very eager to share.
For now, the fight for domination in a future of electric-powered mobility seems to be relegated to the upper tiers of the automotive industry - a brawl that Daihatsu and Perodua are only too happy to stay clear of. Luckily for them, the world is still very far away from being EV-centric, so they can literally let everyone else trade blows. Only when the dust does settle might we start to see them doing things differently.