Proton’s logic with the Inspira

Many see it as taking one step forward and two steps back, but Proton's decision to re-badge the ninth generation Mitsubishi Lancer was far from an act of laziness.

Many attribute Proton’s success down the years to Mitsubishi engineers’ blood, sweat and tears. While this may have been true from the first Proton Saga right down to the current Perdana, Proton have also been involved in making their own cars. The Waja, Protons first claim to fame, the first “completely in-house vehicle” built by the marque was the company’s first attempt at having a crack at it.

Unlike most cars before and after it, the Waja came with a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension when most cars only came with a torsion beam setup. This allowed it to be one of the better handling vehicles in its class. However, it was far from perfect and though they claimed that it was an in house project, a lot of it wasn’t.

It’s said that the Waja was in fact based on the Mitsubishi Carisma. Though the similarities are far from obvious, there are certain lines especially those that make up the C pillar just scream Carisma. The original Waja (non-Campro) came with either a Mitsubishi (1.6-litre) or a Renault (1.8-litre) sourced engines.

However when the Gen2 came along, it was a genuine in-house project and despite a number of hiccups along the way, it has been a pretty decent car and has had a respectable track record.

From then on, Proton was on a role as the company began to offer more and more in-house cars like the Savvy, Saga and the Persona rather than just re-badged Mitsubishis. Then came the introduction of the Inspira and with it Proton did a complete U-turn and went back to its old ways. While most of us see this as taking two steps back, from an economics standpoint, it was a smart move.

The reason for this is that the cost of starting from the ground up is ludicrously expensive. Developing whole new components and assembly processes to accommodate the build requires a huge investment. Then there is the cost of R&D, testing and manufacturing of the final product to meet safety and emissions regulations.

According to former head honcho of Proton, Datuk Syed Zainal Abidin it would have taken Proton 700 million ringgit to start from scratch but by collaborating with Mitsubishi, it only cost the national automaker half as much money to build a new car. The Inspira was placed in a segment of the market that didn't see massive sales figures. Proton couldn't justify spending a substantial amount of money that would be able to recover in the long run. So, the solution was to build on the already successful platform of the Mitsubishi Lancer.

With the current duties on imported vehicles, a full grown Lancer costs RM125,467.80. But by building the car locally Proton managed to sell a car that had slightly better features for just RM92,900.00. This is a huge difference in price for what’s practically the same car. The reason for the price drop is because the car is built locally and entitled to financial incentives.

Though many skeptics said that the car has a watered down Lancer, Mitsubishi never allowed Proton to fiddle with it too much. The only things that Proton changed on the car was the design of the front and rear, tweak the suspension, improve air flow to the transmission and of course change the steering wheel. Everything else is Mitsubishi. The 1.8-litre Inspira is fitted with a 4B10 engine (140bhp) while the 2.0-litre one has a 4B11 (150bhp) engine, the same as the current Lancer. Besides this, all three variants of the car come with a slew of features such as dual SRS airbags, ABS and EBD, reverse sensor, trunk lid remote release and so on.

Quality control has always been Proton’s Achilles heel. Through the years there have been rumours of some seriously under par build quality at Proton resulting in some lacklustre offerings. But things have been improving and the Inspira is a testament to that.

The main problem with Proton is that it isn’t selling enough cars. In 2011 the company only had a 26.% (158,657 units) share and in 2012 that figure when done further to 22.5%(141,121 units). In order for it to sustain its operations as a global player and offer competitive cars, Proton needs to branch out into more markets rather than just relying on the Malaysian market.

The Inspira is one car that can help them do that. By reducing cost and increasing net income, Proton will have a bigger budget to spend on developing its own cars like the Preve and the recently launched Suprima S. For us consumers, was it a good idea to introduce the Inspira? Well for just RM79,015.00 you get a manual 1.8-litre car that’s almost as good as the Lancer. For Mitsubishi fans, the answer should be a resounding yes.