If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it make a sound? If a small car is made in Malaysia and nobody buys it, will they carry on regardless? The answer to the first question is yes. The tree doesn’t choose whether or not to make noise, so it should make a sound when falling. The Proton Savvy was a relative flop, though its manufacturer is still around. So yes for that one too, though it is likely the Savvy will go down in history as one of Proton’s Deadly Sins.
I assume many of you will be aware of Proton, which stands for “PeRusahaan OTOmobil Nasional” (National Automobile Company). The Malaysian marque was created 35 years ago, at a time when Malaysia’s state-sponsored economic boom was already well under way. The Malaysian government brokered a JV with Mitsubishi Motors in 1982, leading to the production of the Proton, essentially a Mitsubishi Lancer with a different badge. The Saga was joined by other models in the ‘90s, but each one was a licensing deal (Mitsubishi and PSA) or a re-skin. Proton took control of British sports car firm Lotus in 1996, giving the Asian marque a new aura.
Proton’s first home-grown design, the Waja, was launched in the year 2000, though it did employ a Mitsubishi engine. The supermini segment in their sights, Proton tried giving their national rival Perodua a run for their money. This started with the Proton Tiara (1996-2000), a badge-engineered Citroën AX, which bombed completely in the domestic market. Chastened but undaunted, Proton hunkered down and produced a completely new platform and design, launched as the Savvy in 2005 and heralded as a promising product. Alas, the optimism faded quickly.
The Savvy was only available with one engine, a 75hp Renault DOHC 1.2 litre 4-cyl. mated to a 5-speed manual, as seen on the contemporary Twingo and Clio. It’s interesting that Proton preferred this solution rather than using their new 1.3 / 1.6 litre CamPro engine, co-developed with Lotus, which started production at the same time as the Savvy but was reserved for larger models. Somehow, the Savvy’s gearchange was unanimously derided as sloppy and the engine was neither particularly discreet nor powerful. A full automatic was not available, but Proton did provide AMT (Automated Manual Transmission), which sounds like a headache and apparently is one. Our feature car has it, which will lower its resale value in this region of the world, where simplicity and reliability are valued above most other considerations.
It’s not like the Savvy is a bad car. For starters, it doesn’t look like a post-Soviet cobbled-together penalty box, unlike some Chinese cars. The overall impression is not “Yugo” so much as “Fiat” in terms of quality. According to what I’ve read online, it’s more like ‘80s Fiat than 2005 Fiat, but a cut above Chery or Tata. So “mediocre” might be the best way to describe the Savvy. This interior publicity shot doesn’t show the quality of plastics and workmanship too well, but most critics and Savvy drivers seem to agree that these are not the car’s strongest suit.
Esthetically, the Savvy is quite idiosyncratic. Superminis are plentiful and usually boring design-wise, so much so that it can be difficult to tell models apart. The Savvy really tried (and succeeded) to make the front, side and rear of the car unmistakably Savvy. Some of that is rather good: the sweeping edge of the front end is distinctive and attractive, though it does remind me of certain East German designs, for some reason.
I’m much less taken with the side view. That stupid broken beltline, which usually doesn’t work on bigger cars, looks positively ridiculous on a car this size. Of course, Malaysia was the Savvy’s most important market. But Proton’s strategy was always to export their wares – usually providing a lot of car for the money. When the Proton Saga made it to British, Kiwi and Australian shores in the late ‘80s, there were a number of cheapskates folks who couldn’t resist a bargain who snapped them up. After all, it was a Mitsubishi design, so the only real worry was build quality. (And it was a worry).
Whereas the Saga was a classic mid-size saloon priced like a city car, the Savvy was a city car priced like… well, a city car. Malaysian labour had become a lot more expensive by then and shipping costs were pretty much identical for a small car or a mid-sizer like the Saga. Proton offered the Savvy in a number of markets, including Australia, Britain, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, but the Savvy faced very tough competition, including a resurgent Dacia and the ever-competent Korean makers. Sales numbers were extremely disappointing in all export markets, including Asian ones.
Domestically, things were also going pear-shaped for the little Savvy. Although it is a relatively small country, Malaysia has two carmakers – Proton, whose initial remit was to make mid-sized cars, and Perodua, who focused on smaller models since its launch in 1992. Malaysians who fancied a small car would usually prefer Peroduas – or any number of other city cars – over the Savvy. Proton’s domestic market share went from over 60% in 2002 to 30% in 2005 and has kept sliding ever since. The reason was the lowering of tariffs, which have allowed more ASEAN-made cars (especially from Thailand and Indonesia) to compete with Proton. This did not help the Savvy’s career, which ended sooner than predicted in December 2011.
Not that the national automaker need worry about the future – it’s still very much state-backed – but even as Proton tried to expand to new markets in Europe, Asia and South America, their footholds in their “historic” markets have also slipped. Thailand has usually been Proton’s 3rd or 4th largest export market over the past couple of decades, but judging by Bangkok traffic, that doesn’t amount to a great deal of cars sold. The Savvy is a rare sight – fewer than 8000 were sold in Thailand – compared to larger cars like the second generation Saga pictured above, which I snapped in traffic recently.
Nowadays, Proton’s lineup remains a mixture of license-built models (e.g. Suzuki Ertiga, Honda Accord) and home-grown efforts like the Prevé. The Savvy experiment was not a total loss: the platform was lengthened a bit to form the new Saga in 2008. But ever-dwindling sales have taken their toll and Proton needed a new partner, which was found in 2016: Geely, owners of Volvo, bought a controlling stake in Lotus and a minority (49.9%) stake in Proton, the other half remaining in the Malaysian state’s portfolio.
The Savvy will remain a valiant and fatally flawed effort from a relatively inexperienced carmaker. The follow-up in this segment, the Iriz, has not been widely exported since its 2014 launch. Proton pulled out of all European markets that year, even as plans to start production in Bangladesh came undone. The Asian tiger cub has had to curb its appetite since the heady ‘90s, but it hasn’t grown into a full adult yet. Perhaps some Chinese medicine will do it good, but that remains to be seen.
Curbside Capsule: 2003-10 Proton Jumbuck – Simple, Honest, Little Car-Truck, by William Stopford
Curbside Outtake/QOTD: 1997-2000 Proton M21 – Would You Buy A Brand New Old Car?, by William Stopford