The PROTON X70 raises a few questions

At a closed-door event yesterday, PROTON unveiled its first-ever SUV, the PROTON X70. The X70 also marks the end of PROTON’s long-standing tradition of naming its cars using proper nouns instead now all future PROTON models will adopt an alpha-numerical naming convention.

The move to change the way PROTON cars are named is sad for me. The names PROTON use during its early days were among the best names you could have for car. Names like “Saga”, “Wira”, “Satria”, “Putra”, “Perdana”, “Juara” are all unquestionably Malaysian.

Remember seeing a PROTON Wira when I was on holiday in the UK and when I was studying in Australia, I found out that there was a very active PROTON Satria GTI club there. This made me beam with pride. A name like the X70 doesn’t make me feel anything.

I ask PROTON’s CEO, Dr. Li Chunrong what is the logic behind the new naming convention and how that convention contradicts the Malaysian DNA that the designers say they have infused into the car. He says that the alphanumeric name serves only a classification of the vehicle type and what he wants people to focus on is the brand PROTON no matter what model.

In this case the name X70 means it’s a C-segment cross-over. In the future, a D-segment cross-over would carry the name X90 and a B-segment cross-over would carry the name X60, and all would be unmistakably PROTON and that’s all customers should remember. I guess that makes sense, the logic is sound but it is devoid of character. Like how the Maserati Quattroporte, in English that literally means “four door” but it sounds so much better in Italian. That’s character. I’d argue, “Bayu” would be a better name for the SUV but then again I’m not the CEO of PROTON.

Anyway…let’s move on.

The development of the PROTON X70 is no secret. Chinese car manufacturer, Geely, acquired a 49.99% stake in PROTON in June 2017 for RM460.30 million. As part of the acquisition, Geely will transfer its SUV platform to PROTON. The platform is used by Geely to build the Boyue SUV and it will form the basis of PROTON’s own SUV (first as a rebadged version of the Boyue and as a completely developed in-house model in the future). Geely also owns Volvo and early this year, the company became the single largest investor in Daimler group which owns Mercedes-Benz which are also resources that PROTON can tap into, potentially.

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The PROTON X70 is virtually identical to the Geely Boyue, most of the differences are cosmetic and where it makes the biggest visual difference. You can see this on the front of the car especially on the grill and at the rear especially on the tailgate. The interior gets some changes but they are mostly in the details, like the speaker covers which are based on a Malay architectural motif. Aside from these (and the fact that the X70 is right-hand drive) there’s very little that separates the X70 from the Boyue and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The preview session gave me an opportunity to take a closer look at the final production version of the X70, to inspect every detail of the car and I have to say – it is unlike any other PROTON ever in terms of the kit that you get and also the quality.

The assortment of gadgets and technology available in the car is aplenty. The most interesting, for me, is the digital meter cluster which offers plenty of viewing and customisation options. You also get a whole host of advanced driver assistance tech like automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, 360-camera, blind spot monitoring and warning, lane departure warning and tyre pressure monitoring system. There’s also voice command, air purification and a multi-speaker sound system with a built-in sub-woofer. I’m not complaining but a wireless charger would be a nice add-on for me.

Beyond all this, it is the quality of the vehicle that impressed me the most. It feels nice to be inside the X70, everything feels good and well thought out. The Nappa leather that wraps the well-shaped and very comfortable seats are as good as any you’d get in a Mercedes or BMW. The seating position is relaxing, and the steering wheel has the right rim diameter and size that it feels good in the hands. If you didn’t know that the X70 is a PROTON, you wouldn’t think that it is a PROTON.

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If you talk to PROTON’s Head of Design, Azlan Osman, he will share with you a very interesting story about how the design elements of the X70 was inspired by Malaysian elements like the car’s shoulder line that he says is drawn from the family of big cats, especially the Malayan Tiger and how the grill design was inspired from Malay woodcarving motifs. I’ll leave the discussion about the design of the car to you, our fellow readers, to discuss in the comments section as it is something very subjective and personal but for me, the car is, as I would describe it, palatable. There’s nothing special about the look of the X70 but there’s nothing wrong with it either.

So what do I think about the PROTON X70?

I think it is a competent car at least from a features, design and quality point of view but seeing the X70 in the flesh and listening to the PROTON leadership team explain how the car marks the beginning of a new chapter for PROTON, how it wants to venture a new market (on that it has never been in before), and how the team hopes to uplift the brand, I’m left with more questions than answers.

What will the PROTON X70 actually bring to the table?

Like I mentioned, the X70 is a competent car. The quality is excellent, the spec list is long and plentiful (depending on the trim level). This brings PROTON on par with many other car brands because, to be honest, the tech that you get in the X70 is nothing new. It is – if the car is priced correctly – will be the first time in Malaysia that this tech is made affordable to more customers. That assuming if the price is right. Then, the question is, apart from the price being the differentiator, what else the X70 would bring to the table for buyers? PROTON can’t expect to compete on price alone if it wants to break into the lucrative SUV segments, it needs to bring brand value and desirability, that’s going to be a problem.

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How will the PROTON X70 attract new customers?

The global market share for sports-utility vehicles (SUV) is about 35%, in the ASEAN region, SUV account for 15% of the vehicles that are on the road. In Malaysia, SUV only makes up 11% of the vehicles on the road. There’s a considerable opportunity for PROTON to tap into this market but the challenge is this is unchartered territory for the brand. To succeed, PROTON will be reaching out to two types of consumers that they have never marketed to before – #1 people who have never considered PROTON and #2 people who are looking to buy an SUV.

These two market segments will be a challenge for PROTON because options for good, affordable SUV are plentiful. If you’re in the market for an SUV, you have Honda, Kia, Mazda, Toyota and Mitsubishi to choose from, just to name a few. And these brands have a significant advantage over PROTON, they don’t carry the perception baggage.

How is PROTON going to overcome that? How are they going to appeal to customers who have never considered a PROTON as an option for their SUV purchase?

I ask Dr. Li the question and he responded in one word – “product”. He explains further to say that a brand is as good as its product and he believes that when customers see the X70 and see what it can do, the baggage will disappear. To a degree, I agree with what he says and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting such a frank answer. However, the realisation won’t be as simple. A car is a very personal purchase, would a person that can afford a CR-V want a PROTON in his driveway? Well if the PROTON is that good, why not. But…is this PROTON that good? We’ll have to wait to see.

For now I’ll say, with the X70, PROTON has something special in its hand and if it can get the balance of price, availability, customer service and product performance just right, this something special can be something truly extraordinary for the brand.