Malaysian automaker Proton has been selling cars in Australia for around two decades now but have struggled to make any headway. Those who have even heard of the low-profile brand generally perceive it to be a budget automaker, selling on price and not on quality or prestige. But that perception may have worked in their favor for one of their models, the Jumbuck. Their first ute in a country that popularized the concept, Proton’s little trucklet offered a simple, compact and reliable alternative to the larger and more expensive Japanese trucks.
Proton first came into existence in 1983 and was owned by the Malaysian government until being sold to a conglomerate in 2012. One of two indigenous automakers in Malaysia, Proton received protection in the domestic market thanks to restrictive government tariffs on imports which have only just recently been eased. The government actively encouraged the export of Proton products worldwide, and they have been sold in various European and Asia-Pacific markets for many years. Additionally, Proton purchased Lotus and used their engineers to assist in the tuning of some Proton models. Up until the 2000s, Proton’s export lineup consisted of models based on old Mitsubishi platforms.
The Jumbuck, known as the Arena in other markets, was based on the discontinued Persona sedan and hatch which in turn was based on the 1992 Mitsubishi Lancer/Mirage. It was the first compact, car-based ute to be sold in Australia since the Subaru Brumby (Brat), and like that Subaru it received a distinctly Aussie name: a “jumbuck” is a term for a sheep, albeit not commonly heard outside of the wretched Australian poem “Waltzing Matilda”
To improve its abilities as a load-hauler, the Jumbuck received a leaf-sprung rear suspension. The only powertrain option was a 1.5, 12-valve four-cylinder engine with 85hp and 91 ft-lbs, mated to a five-speed manual. Mystifyingly, this low-tech engine required premium unleaded fuel. Performance was uninspiring – around 14 seconds from 0-60mph – and downright weak with a load out back. Carrying a load, though, helped alleviate the choppy, truck-like ride. The Jumbuck weighed 2325lbs, and had a load capacity of around 1200lbs and a braked towing capacity of 2200 pounds.
Inside, there was the same low-rent dash as seen in the Persona with poor material quality. The Jumbuck countered this with a low list price: the base GLi was $AUD15,990 (later slashed by $1k) and thus priced the same as many entry-level subcompacts. Standard equipment included a CD player, air-conditioning and remote keyless entry, although you had to pony up an extra $2k for the GLSi to obtain power windows and mirrors and seats that weren’t trimmed in vinyl; the GLSi also featured some smart cladding and fog lights. However, neither Jumbuck had airbags, even as an option.
It was this glaring safety omission that would underscore the Jumbuck’s dated underpinnings. In 2009 ANCAP testing, the Jumbuck received an abysmal one-star rating. The Jumbuck may have been an honest, cheap and reliable little truck – Car Advice enjoyed their long-term test car – but poor safety ratings were enough to give any potential buyer pause.
The Jumbuck would be axed shortly after in 2010. A replacement was planned, as the Jumbuck had been a fairly consistent seller for Proton in Australia, but it never reached production. Instead, Proton invested in conventional hatches, sedans and minivans like the Suprima and Exora. But even those new models, boasting much more modern styling and better safety ratings, have failed to move the needle on Proton sales in Australia. The brand remains stuck in a rut, managing to be both widely unknown and widely dismissed: peak market share was reached in 2010 with a paltry 0.2%. Great Wall Motors, a Chinese company, picked up the mantle of hottest-selling budget ute manufacturer with its more conventional, four-wheel-drive utes thanks to low prices and a heavy marketing campaign (the latter something Proton has never had) until a glut of recalls helped torpedo their sales. In such a small and concentrated marketplace you need to stand out, and even though today’s Protons are the best Protons yet, the brand is going nowhere. Offering something unique would surely help them: if you can’t beat them, why join them? Perhaps its time for a Jumbuck II.