Monday, December 18, 2006

Of the Avanza Owner's Club and What Proton Needs to Do To Survive

Somehow, the past couple of weeks have been extremely hectic. With not much time to voice out my opinion on things concerning the automotive world, it has become obvious that there have been no new articles on my blog for the whole of last week. I have been busy glancing through magazines and recently, an article in the latest issue of a local Malaysian tuning had caught my eye.

I read an article about the Toyota Avanza owner’s club and found out that it is an active club and that the owner’s of this Van were actually spending their time and money researching on how to make this Van corner better. While this is a good thing, they’ve actually went slightly overboard in putting tons of chassis bracing and high end Kayaba shocks in order for the Van to corner better. I wonder whether firstly, they are doing it for the safety of the passengers or secondly, bragging rights within the club or lastly, so that when they take corners, their children, wife, maid and pet dog or cat will be flung left and right as well as up and down while they are doing the chicanes at obscene speeds around shopping complex car parks. I suppose being Malaysian, everything’s possible. If they can fit a Supra twin turbo engine in the Avanza’s big sister the Unser, I suppose soon we’ll see a 20valve Toyota twin cam 1.6 or a TRD/BEAMS Yamaha tuned 2.0 VVTL-I in an Avanza anytime soon. I can hardly wait.

What I’d like to talk about today are the problems faced by Proton. This small insight to why Proton has actually failed and if no changes are made was cooked up at a weekend Teh Tarik session with a friend of mine somewhere in Gombak. I have to thank this chap who drives a Celica with another round of Teh Tarik on my the next time I see him. I’d divide this examination in brief to a few parts.

1. The people in Proton love cars that handle until they are blind.

The simple fact is that you see Proton building cars that can handle and corner very well. However, none of the general Malaysian public bothers with this fact. What they want is actually tons of space. Good examples of these would be the Perodua Myvi and the Toyota Avanza. At the price they are selling these cars, space counts. Young couples who like buying stuff at IKEA love the Myvi. Thirtysomethings with 3 children and a maid love the Avanza. These people don’t want to drive like Senna or Montoya most of the time. If you go to a small town, you see Pakciks and Makciks driving at 60km/h everywhere. These people don’t need handling. What they need is space to carry their tempoyak and ikan kembung from the pasar to their house. They’d like to know that the car is safe and will be able to protect them in an accident, not handling by Lotus. Proton has its marketing and strategy wrong. While being pro-handling is actually good, the well-being of the company and its future should be considered here.

2. The people in Proton are blind until they fail to see what the market wants.

Again we see the Avanza and Myvi come into the picture. Ever since the Waja, Proton have not launched a car, MPV or SUV that the market actually wants. Proton had launched the Juara to almost no success whatsoever. The reason being that while it is good strategy to launch an MPV, the Malaysian public’s perception on MPV is that is cannot, must not and in all that’s holy look like a van. What Malaysians want in an MPV is that it must be car-like in its features. Look at the Naza Ria/Citra as well as the Toyota Unser (while Pig ugly, still has a 2 box shape) and Avanza.

They also came out with the Proton GEN2, Savvy and the Satria Neo. Notice that the best selling new Proton is still the Waja for the simple fact that it has a boot bigger than most cars in its class and it has 4 doors and legroom for basketball players at the rear. With the Gen2, you got not much bootspace and rear headroom. With the Savvy you got not much of everything as it’s a small mini sized car and with the Satria Neo, it’s a 2 door hatch that’s out to capture the single girl or single guy market. Why come out with cars that do not hit the spot? Why come out with niche market cars in a market where niches aren’t that profitable? Note that there are still not that many Savvy or Satria Neos on the road to this day. You see Gen2s on the road as it has 4 doors. Malaysians still can accept a car like this if it has 4 doors.

Proton has totally misread the basic needs of the Malaysian public by not coming out with cars that they actually need. What they want and need are actually 2 different things. By launching 3 hatchbacks in a sedan driven market is actually bad strategic planning actually. Proton needs another sedan, an SUV and a MPV (that doesn’t look like a van) to survive.

3. The people in Proton believe that they do not need to improve on the quality of material they use and only improve on the finishing and producing defect free cars.

This is another strategy gone wrong for Proton. Let’s take the success story of another Korean car that is a success story in Malaysia. The Kia Spectra. This piece of Bantha fodder is actually a car which is even less substantial than the Proton Waja, yet the Malaysian public still rush out and buys it. What Naza Kia has done is listen to what the general populace wants in a family sedan. What the general populace wants is this:

“I want what a Mercedes have. I want Leather Seats, a CD player, ABS, EBD and some semblance of class that Proton cars don’t give me”

And as such, the marketing team in Naza Kia throws in leather seats, a CD player ABS, EBD, rear disc brakes and great marketing advertisements showing class and grandeur from a Kia Spectra. The general populace buys it in droves.

What Proton has done to counter Kia is come out with products that have an interior made from the same plastic as the microwave containers we use for takeout food. There are no leather seats unless you pay for it and only recently decided to offer CD players on most cars. Proton, no one listens to tape nowadays. Are you in league with aftermarket accessory shops? You want more people to go change their players at accessory shops issit?

If the basic Kia Spectra offers ABS, why isn’t Proton offering ABS like what the general populace wants? I think all Protons should have ABS for the simple sake of telling the people who buy cars that Proton cares for the safety of its consumers. The actual fact is that, the Pakciks and Makciks who drive at 60km/h do not really need the ABS as they seldom use the car fast enough for anything to happen. Some even send the car to the workshop because they think that the judder they feel upon heavy braking is a faulty brake system whereas it’s actually the ABS kicking in. These people wouldn’t know how the ABS works but they just like to have it on their car as it gives them bragging rights when they’re exchanging information at the Mamak stall or among relatives at a family reunion. Imagine this scene:

“Wah, Pakcik Abu, new car arrr?”

“Yes, my new Kia Spectra.”

“Nice lah, got leather seats. Must be very comfortable.”

“Ya, summore got CD player, ABS, EBD, 16VALVE SOHC, leather steering wheel 15in Sports Rims and more.”

“FOOOOOOYIOOOOOOOHHHHHHH, so good lah this car, everything also got. I must tell my dad to buy one also”

And a sales phenomenon starts within Pakcik Abu’s family and friends.

This is also the same with the rear disc brakes. Notice with the Honda ES model Civic the 1.7 models came with rear drum brakes. Malaysians were aghast as they thought that drum brakes couldn’t stop anything but a 1950 morris minor. So the latest Civics brought in from CKD packs in Thailand come fully equipped with rear discs. This is what Naza Kia thought of so much earlier and then packaged them in. From a sales and marketing point of view, brilliant. From a cost point of view, not so brilliant. But if it’s what the public wants, so be it. Of course, this fact Proton has countered as all new Protons have rear disc brakes. But it all goes to show how mighty the consumer is.

If Proton wants to at least gain back some of the sales which it has lost, it would need to actually give more than what they currently give. They would need to work on a more tactile interior. The interior would have to be at least a good as a Toyota before people would actually believe that it is better than a Kia. The mountain is really that high as currently, if you took a look at the Gen2 and the Satria Neo, you'd notice that the dashboard is made out of hard plastic that is only fit for cars in the small mini size or budget bracket. Of course, the lack of stupid defects like power window failures should not occur anymore. That is obvious.

Malaysians want space, toys and class. They do not want Lotus to tune the suspension. They want gadgets that they see in Mercedes and BMWs. They want bus sized interiors with the luxuries of a pleasure cruiser. What has been given by Proton are hatchbacks and more hatchbacks and ugly van-like MPVs which no one wants. No wonder people are not buying the latest batch of Protons.

A breakdown on what should Proton do in order to survive:

1. Market on safety, luxury and space. People at this price range do not want “handling by Lotus.” But want a cheap Mercedes knockoff.

2. Make MPVs, SUVs and Sedans instead of launching 3 hatchbacks in a row.

3. Improve the tactile feel of the cabin. Give top notch plastics.

4. Install the latest safety features at whatever cost as Malaysians like to brag about what they have in their car.

5. Have a proper strategic planning team in place. Find out where Proton needs to go from here on. Proton is never going to be a Ferrari who formed his company with the need to maintain his racing team. And as such, Proton has to know what t wants to be. It needs to be a volume seller. It needs to make safe, reliable, spacious, luxurious and stylish cars within a price range. It needs to be the next Toyota. That’s the company it should benchmark. There are no excuses. Benchmark the best global manufacturer and you can’t go wrong.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tech Focus: Would the noise from a car make you buy it? I would.

I’ve decided to work harder today (and hopefully for the rest of my career). The reason being that recently, a Brabus versioned SL 55 AMG zipped by on the opposite side of the road and the driver basically let it rip. The sound emanating from the tailpipes or engine was absolutely mind blowing extra loud BRRAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPP.

It is exactly a cross between a NASCAR V8 and a World War II fighter plane. I suppose the engineers at AMG must have conveniently forgot about drive-by noise regulations when they designed this engine and exhaust system. I suppose when you can afford one of these, you wouldn’t be bothered about neighbours complaining that your car is noisy and disturbs their 6 month old baby’s nap. You’d just buy over the whole surrounding neighbourhood or buy a 10,000 acre estate somewhere in Sungai Buloh. The police won’t even bother you unlike the time when you once owned a Proton Saga with a hundred Ringgit ‘meriam buluh’ muffler. And as such, you can make the SL55 wail in graceful abandon, without a care in the world.

Some cars produce noise that’s irritating and outright loud without an ounce of character in them. Some produce a sound as if the Angels had come down from Heaven and blessed the engine and its exhaust pipes with their harps. Some produce a sound as if a gigantic beast had awoke and now wants to eat everything it its path. However, it is usually the first case that happens to be in abundance around here instead of the second and third situation. We get the sound of mosquitos and the sound of a hollow tin can rattling around in most cars. The mosquito like sound usually comes from a Perodua Kancil with a RM95 muffler from the shops proclaiming ‘murah, tarak tipu punya’. You pay el-cheapo money for this crappy irritating sound. And it does not make a 3 cylinder Kancil engine sound like half a Porsche 911 flat 6. This is because we all know that in order to get a decent sounding car, (or a decent handling car, or a decently characterful car etc. etc) you’d have to pay through your bleeding nose for something like that if you want it brand new.

The thing that limits the ownership of a soulful sounding car in Malaysia is the same as the ownership of any soulful looking or a neat handling car. The reason is that these cars usually cost a whole lot more than those anodyne cars you see everywhere. It is also because manufacturers who sell basic low end cars are too busy working out numbers on how to milk as much profit from them rather than spend money on developing interesting handling, loads of power, a decent driving position or even the tuning the exhaust system or intake system of a car to make it sound nicer. But sometimes, it is advancement that makes an engine quieter.

We shall look at good sounding affordable cars in this article. The problem of cost also limits most mass produced cars to having a 4 cylinder in line engine. An in-line 4 is very cost effective when it comes to piston displacement and the power it produces. With the correct camshaft profiles, correct intake and exhaust as well as ignition and camshaft timing an in-line 4 could produce an efficient 100bhp per 1000cc. We take note of the Mitsubishi MIVEC and the Honda VTEC engines for this. The power outputs these engines make are astounding. But, I’ve experienced that a correctly tuned VTEC or i-VTEC engine from the year 2006 will not sound like the step-up VTECs from 1990. You won’t feel a rush or a change in induction like in those days as it’s more linear nowadays. Less character you may say, but there are no gaps in the powerband like before. There is less of a blood curling howl in the latest DC5 Integra than in an early DA6 Integra. I suppose it’s when everything is balanced out it goes quiet. It may however still have a somewhat unique shriek due to the fact that the Honda Twin Cam VTEC revs to at least 8,500rpm where most cars find it a struggle to reach 6,500rpm. The extra 2,000rpm or so makes a lot of difference when it comes to induction roar and exhaust note.

Some may say that it isn’t the way to make a car sound good but these people have forgotten the induction roar of those old 4 cylinder cars running 2 or more carburettors. Honda once in the late 60s came out with their S800 which ran 4 Mikuni carbs and a 9,500rpm redline. As such, one of the pleasures of owning a high revving Honda or Mitsubishi would be gunning the engine right up to the redline, knowing that you are one of the few with engines (in cars) that can howl and shriek like a Pontianak with some belacan shoved up her arse. However, you need at least RM195,000 to fork out for a Jap unregistered reconditioned Integra DC5 for the pleasure (if one can still be found that is). Of course second hand EG series Civics from 1992-1996 could be bought, but they aren’t worth paying up to RM35,000.00 for one and hard to get financing also.

However, note that with the Yamaha designed Toyota VVTL-i 1.8liter engine found in the Celica or the MRS you won’t find any outrageous noises anywhere. Being a Toyota engine, it performs like a grown up engine should. Quietly doing its job with a very, very normal twin cam noise. Nice, but not as good as you’d expect. Somehow, you’d buy the car to enjoy driving it. Sound is secondary to a Toyota. In fact, you’ve never once heard anyone say that they bought a Toyota for the sound.

Now we come to flat 4s, a rare sort of configuration once used on Lancias and Alfas as well as the VW Beetle. Only Subaru carries on with this configuration nowadays. Porsches are 6 cylinders and BMW makes 2 cylinder boxers for their bikes. If you noticed the newer Subaru Imprezas are pretty thrummy instead of burbly due to the fact that it has equal length manifolds which balance the pulses of the exhaust gasses. In the early days, you get Imprezas with manifolds having very unequal lengths from each bank of cylinders. This causes the exhaust pulses to be unbalanced and therefore a burble as nice as a V8 engine. With each improvement, the Subaru EJ series comes closer to being as interesting as a workmanlike drone of a Mitsubishi 4G63 engine, a classic in its own right, but a very electrical appliance sort of drone when it comes to making noise.

However, at this moment, there still is a semblance of character in its exhaust note compared to other 4 cylinder cars. The Subaru Impreza/Forester and the in some ways the Subaru Legacy are the only 4 cylinder cars that sound different and good nowadays. No one utilises flat 4s anymore. I suppose it does cost more to produce with separate cylinder banks and all, but the price for maintaining this kind of engine makes it worthwhile as it makes it have a dozen times more soul than the run of the mill in-line 4s. Expect to pay RM115, 000.00 for a recently new Subaru Impreza WRX bug eye from 2000-2001. This version still has a very single beat sound compared to the later models as with the 2004 revision (applied E onwards) the manifolds are of equal length.

The next affordable type of engine that produces decent noise would be the Alfa Romeo 4 cylinder in-line engines, with its twin spark cylinder heads and variable cam timing. This covers both the newer JTS engines as well as the earlier fully Alfa Twin Spark ones. The Alfa trademark is a very throaty growl. The Italian engineers/designers seem to have perfected the art of making everything they touch from the look of the car to the sound of the car seem just nice. However, the only problem of owning an Alfa is that you may be afraid of driving it due to the fact that something may break and cost a bomb while you’re driving it. This puts a spanner to the cogs to most people’s plans of buying one. Even if they do buy one, they hardly take it out of Kuala Lumpur and hit the B-roads. Some don’t even leave their neighbourhood in the first place. One Alfa I’d suggest anyone to buy is the one my cousin bought, a 147 1.6 Twin Spark manual from 2001. It doesn’t have the selespeed gearbox, therefore you won’t die a pauper trying to maintain it. It’s been pretty reliable throughout the one year my cousin has owned his and it still looks great. The market price for a 1.6 is around RM60,000.00.

After this the only car that sounds decent for around RM100,000 would be a Proton Perdana with its V6 engine. But you won’t want to pay 100k for a car that’s been in production for so long and when there’s gearbox problems cropping up, and a flooded second hand market of Perdanas. You wouldn’t want one anyway. But a V6 sounds good nonetheless. And if you want one, get a recently used one from the year 2004-2005. It’ll sell for around RM60-80,000. But the thing is, you may need a few thousand more fixing up the gearbox if the previous owner hadn’t experienced the gearbox problem first. It’s a catch 22 situation with this car.

There are other cars that have a vocal engine, but you will be looking at cars that are second hand if you want them cheap. 6cylinder BMW 3 series E36s and E46s as well as the 5 series (all of them at the age where things start to go wrong and cost BMW money to fix), the 5 cylinder Fiat Coupes (with tons of problems to go with it), certain old Nissans with the RB20, 25 or 26 engines, the newer VQ series V6 from Nissans in the Cefiros (fwd and dull to drive).

The thing is, cost is always the constraint, and if cost wasn’t a constraint, the top 5 list of current production cars to have just because of the noise they make would be as follows (I shall limit to the cars that I have had the pleasure of hearing them sing):

1. Mercedes Benz SL55 AMG

2. Ferrari F430

3. Bentley Continental GT/GTC

4. BMW M5

5. Range Rover Sport (basically that would make the new Jaguar XK coupes sound fantastic and its cousin the Aston Vantage which utilises the same engine as desirable)

So, should we choose a car to own for the noise that it makes? I suppose some cars like the SL55 AMG would make me say yes.