Proton will enter the electric vehicle arena in 2023 but is their choice of vehicle a smart one?
Proton's partnership with smart to distribute the smart #1 electric vehicle in Malaysia and Thailand is undeniably a new milestone for Proton and the local automotive scene.
This partnership basically means that for the first time, a local automobile manufacturer will sell an electric vehicle (EV) - even though it is not the Proton EV that many had imagined.
Not the Proton EV we imagined
Picture credit: AutoEvolution
When Proton was rumoured to be conducting feasibility studies on introducing an EV for the Malaysian market in 2021, we all thought that they were working on a Proton EV. We also thought they might go as far as rebadging one under the Proton name because they've done that quite well with Geely thus far.
smart #1 - The smart choice for Malaysia?
Never did we think they would be distributors for another brand, even if it is a brand tied to their partner, Geely. Proton's partners have a 50% stake in smart. The equal-stake joint venture between Geely and Daimler has no doubt rejuvenated the smart brand, as the waiting list for the smart #1 in China is at least a year long.
Speaking of a year-long, this is probably another reason why the smart #1 will only be introduced locally in Q4 2023. Yes, these things take time, such as building up the team and the car's support system in Malaysia, but we think the year-long wait for the car to be launched in Malaysia is primarily down to availability. Even the UK will only receive a handful of right-hand drive units in December 2022.
Proton - EV infrastructure/ charging network to be developed
A year is a long time to wait as many things can happen between now and then (change of government, change of policies), but during the official agreement signing, Proton said they are not concerned about the timeline, even if there were other EVs introduced between now and the smart #1's local introduction, where there's a possibility that those EVs would have already stolen its customers.
Instead, they said the period gives them time to study its competitors so that they can introduce a smart #1 that is absolutely right for their target market. Introducing an imported EV in Q4, 2023 also means they will have only a short time to sell the smart #1 before the fully imported EV tax exemption expires. Proton said they are beseeching the government to extend this policy so that the public can benefit from its offering.
No CKD operations for smart #1 just yet...
At the press conference after the agreement signing, Proton's deputy CEO, Roslan Abdullah, said that it's too early to consider CKD operations for the #1 as it is yet to go on sale in Malaysia. Proton would need to assemble the cars locally to take advantage of tax incentives for EVs beyond 2023, so we will have to wait and see what Proton has in the pipeline.
Speaking of tax exemption that will influence the smart #1's price, there are many concerns that the car might be too pricey for its target market. Currently, the smart #1 has a starting price tag of RM120k in China, which tops out at RM150k for the range-topping model. When it comes to Malaysia, we can only hope that it tops out at RM150k, but many are expecting it to be priced above RM150,000, flirting instead around the RM200k mark.
Price and powertrain options of the smart #1?
From what we can gather from smart and Proton's promotional video, the target market seems to be the younger generation. The car is funky and cool, which will attract younger buyers, not those who want something a bit more executive-looking. Right now, the main bulk of EV buyers in Malaysia are the older generation who have thick wallets, apart from those younger buyers who are well-endowed, we can't really see many younger buyers buying them, simply because it'll be relatively pricey.
Proton however said that they are working on a reasonable price for the smart #1, which will allow many Malaysians to obtain the vehicle. They are even working closely with financial providers to make the smart EV as affordable as possible.
The one thing that might push buyers towards the smart #1 EV is the charging infrastructure. Proton understands that there is range anxiety when it comes to EVs, which is why they have it in their plans to build up charging facilities across the nation.
According to the slides shown by Proton during the agreement signing, they plan to place charging facilities at popular routes as well as build them up equally within urban and rural areas. In addition, the Proton team responsible for the charging network is also studying the feasibility of setting up mobile charging stations across the country as they wait for the country's charging infrastructure to grow.
A fellow journalist also asked Proton about their plans for Thailand, but they said they are concentrating on Malaysia first as it is a more challenging market to tackle. The Federation of Thai Industries forecasts EV sales in Thailand to be more than 10,000 units this year, while we are only raking in double-digit sales monthly.
Proton is still in the early stages of building the new smart brand in Malaysia, hence even they admitted to the media that they are still unable to answer some questions. However, we hope that they manage to find solutions for the many elephants in the room, as we are rooting for them to get this #1 right.
Heck, if the price is right, we'd definitely buy a smart #1 because it is an attractive little car with all the right features to be a good EV for anyone.