Friday, April 17, 2009

Fakta Terperinci Proton Exora

The new Proton Exora, officially launched by the Prime Minister tonight, is a model which should have been available a long time ago. It was already apparent in the late 1990s that Malaysians love MPVs as the popularity of the Toyota Unser showed. The reason is because Malaysian families are large and people also have maids so a 5-seater sedan can become inadequate, more so if grandparents are also included in a family outing. But because prices of cars are relatively high due to the government insisting on using the auto sector as its revenue-earner (hence the unnecessarily high taxes), most families can’t afford extra cars and so the MPV is the practical solution if they can afford only one vehicle. Proton never had such a model to offer until now.

Actually Proton did have a plan to make such a model in the early 1990s, recalled Proton’s Chairman Dato’ Mohd Nadzmi bin Mohd Salleh who was MD of the company then. However, the project (rumoured to have been with Mercedes-Benz) never went further and after he left when Proton was 'privatised’ in the mid-1990s, it was ignored by the management then.

Of course, this is not really Proton’s first MPV as there was the Juara, a mini-MPV cloned from the Mitsubishi Town Box. Why Proton ever got into it is a mystery although at that time, it was announced that Mitsubishi was providing the model 'free’ and Proton would re-engineer it for the next generation and then build the units and sell them to Mitsubishi for its next Town Box. But the Juara was a 'disaster’ from the first day: instead of selling at a rate of 600 units a month as forecast, it sold in tens of units. To be fair, the Juara was only a marketing disaster because it wasn’t a bad product and there were no problems reported. It looks turned many people off (some kids refused to even be seen in one!) and Proton struggled for years to clear the 3,000 units it had built in advance.

Anyway, it could be that, after the Juara episode, interest in doing MPVs was gone although it is known that in 2002, there was a study to do another MPV but it was also not a priority, especially after Naza had launched the Ria. Instead, the focus was on model types (hatchbacks) which failed to draw the sort of numbers the Iswara and Saga used to, obviously the wrong models for this market which caused Proton sales to head downhill, dragging the company into the red for the first time in its history.

Had the management not changed, one wonders if the Exora would have been developed since there was apparently no plan to have such a model in the line-up this decade. Such a model was considered for actual production after the new management took over and from the time the design was 'fixed’, it was just 18 months to production readiness – a very brisk speed considering that there was also the New Saga to be developed. RM450 million was spent on the project, of which RM70 million was for manufacturing aspects, a figure that was actually lower than preceding models.

Being a latecomer in the MPV segment is not necessarily a disadvantage for Proton because it had the chance to see the shortcomings of other MPVs and not only avoid them but also offer a better product. From what can be seen, Proton made full use of its 'lateness’ and has come out with a model that is innovative and it also has that Lotus DNA which has given its recent models noteworthy ride and handling.

For styling, many people indicated they liked something like the Toyota Wish so that provided a starting point for the designers. The looks are contemporary, a cross between a Toyota Wish and a Mitsubishi Grandis and no 'boxiness’ (though the front end is a bit 'chunky’). The rear lights are distinctive with their bright LEDs and positioned high so that they won’t get damaged easily in a collision.

As mentioned earlier, being late allowed Proton to see what the competition offers and do better than them so the dimensions for the Exora could be made class-leading. As the chart below shows, it is longer and wider than the Nissan Grand Livina, Toyota Avanza, Naza Rondo and even the Toyota Innova. From earlier spy pictures, it did not seem that long but apparently it is.

Pick-up proposal using the Exora platform

The Waja platform which had originated from that used for the Volvo S40/Mitsubishi Carisma of the mid-1990s was already too old to be further adapted for the Exora. So a new platform was needed and it’s going to also be for other Proton models to come, including the replacements for the Persona and Perdana. At some point later on, if the numbers show a good business case, there may also be a pick-up or van variant off the same platform, which is how other manufacturers do it to reduce costs. Either that or share a platform with someone else but Proton is determined to have a degree of independence so it has to invest in this area itself.
The inside of the Exora is very impressive from the point of view of spaciousness and also appointments. With this model, the interior designers have outdone themselves and far from looking cheap (which was often the comment about Proton interiors), there is thoughtful use of different textures for the various surfaces which makes a lot of difference. In the past, this sort of thing was not given a lot of attention and dashboards looked really cheap and plasticky.

The centre console has a metallic finish which makes it a distinctive element on the dashboard. The layout is clean and providing a 2DIN opening for a conventional audio system will be appreciated. It will be possible to easily replace the audio system with an after-market unit, something which is less common these days as manufacturers integrate their audio systems with the dashboard fascia, making it a hassle for those who must have their own system.

The shift lever is mounted on an extension off the dashboard so it is higher and within easier reach for most people. The automatic shifter has a gated shift pattern like expensive models (though some cheaper ones also have it now) which is nice for those who know and want to shift manually (not to be mistaken for a tiptronic system which it is not).

There are many storage spaces provided for cans and bottles for every occupant, including those in the third row. The cupholders are well designed, being deep enough to contain bottles or cans properly. And the interior designers also went one step further by providing a slot with the rearmost cupholders which can take a magazine or comic book. The dashboard also has two separate storage compartments for the passenger’s use, the second one above the usual glovebox. The upper one is not, as is often the case, an unused airbag recess as the airbag is stowed further up. If there is no airbag, then the space is used as a tray. On the driver’s side, there is a slot for a tollcard, which is a feature not many cars have so again, it shows the thoughtfulness of the interior designers.
As many readers will know, this particular journalist has long made an 'issue’ about the absence of a teh tarik hook in Protons. From friends in the R&D team, I was told that this particular feature was made a 'must-have’ for the Exora because the MD didn’t want to hear me asking the same question again! It’s something which is found in many other cars and to me, it is a feature which is necessary for our lifestyle where we often buy food in plastic bags so there must be somewhere to hang it inside the car. Yet no one thought of putting it in the first Malaysian car nor the second one until now. And it’s not like it’s a complex feature either; yes, you can buy a pair for a few ringgit and put them under the headrests but Proton could also provide them as part of the design. And finally they have – one to the right of the glovebox and the other under the front passenger’s headrest.

Actually, even though the Proton people associate me with the teh tarik hook, I must explain that it was really the late Dato’ Gurcharan Singh, the first GM of EON, who brought it up. During the media launch of the Saga 1.5I in 1988, he complained that there was no 'char kuey teow’ hook for him to hang the packet of noodles and he felt that was something a Malaysian Car should have as standard.

In keeping with the times, the Exora (H-Line) has a standard DVD player/monitor mounted on the ceiling. It’s a standalone unit which can play DVDs and also accept media cards so apart from watching movies, the occupants could review their holiday pictures as they go home.

One thing which Protons have been praised for – right from the first Saga – has been the air-conditioning. Given our hot climate, a high-performance cooling system is important and with the Exora’s large cabin and extra glass area, this would have been a challenge. To ensure that everyone stays cool, there are vents on the ceiling – two on each side so that even those in the third row get cool air. The fan speed can be controlled but the switch is too far forward (ahead of the DVD player) and would be better if it was positioned over the second row.
Being a MPV, the cabin has to be able to change its seating layout as required to carry cargo or people. With the Exora, there are 6 different layouts possible ranging from a 7-passenger layout with all three rows of seats in use to a '2-seater’ with both back rows folded. The third row is not removable but that’s not a problem since the backrests fold flat into the floor. Access to the third row is easy – just press the release lever on the side of the second row and the whole seat flips up and forward. The floor height is not too high so most people will not find it a difficult climb in. The rear doors also open extra-wide to make movement in and out easier. Proton didn’t give the cargo volumes for the Exora but it did show the media (via some movie clips) that its MPV can take more cargo than the Grand Livina and the Avanza.

For now, the Exora has only one engine – the 1.6-litre Campro CPS+VIM which produces 125 bhp at 6000 rpm and 150 Nm of torque at 4500 rpm. It’s a familiar engine by now so we won’t get into much detail. A turbocharged version is rumoured for introduction later on but no one will confirm it. Incidentally, the Exora has front-wheel drive in case you don’t realize it.

Final drive ratio has been lowered for the Exora transmissions

The Campro engine – after the CPS version - has proven itself to be a good powerplant in sedans but with the Exora weighing over 1,400 kgs, the weight-to-power ratio is obviously not as good as what it would be in a Waja. For this reason, a lot of effort was put into retuning the transmission control unit to provide the driveability that would be acceptable. This also necessitated a change of the final drive ratio in the Mitsubishi transmission to a lower 4.625 (all the other ratios in the manual and automatic transmission are the same as in the Waja and Gen2). This means that overall gearing is lower and that enhances low-end performance but sacrifices a bit at the top end. However, the Campro CPS is already known to be inherently strong at the top end so losing a bit is no big deal. Most owners would probably not notice it anyway. There is also a lock-up clutch installed which provides a direct solid link in top gear at cruising speeds, reducing power losses that occur with the hydraulic linkage.

The suspension layout is a simple one with MacPherson struts in front and a torsion beam at the rear (for the sedan variants on the same platform, a multi-link rear suspension will be developed). The front suspension is attached to a sub-frame and this sub-frame is hydroformed, a process which gives it greater strength and rigidity while reducing weight. By putting the suspension on the sub-frame, there is better isolation from road shocks and the suspension elements also have more sturdy attachment points.

Much effort has also gone into reducing noise in the cabin and Proton has spent extra money to provide above sound insulation materials as well as used some technologies to cut noise. This is something which is not considered in models in this price class and again, Proton has tried to give more without charging more.

The Exora makes use of a Body Control Module (BCM) and while BCMs have been available for some time, they have mostly been found in more expensive models. It is likely that Proton is the first manufacturer to offer it in this class. The unit is made by Siemens VDO which is the world leader in the manufacture of such modules. The one for the Exora comes from its factory in China, a little fact which Proton engineers today have no reluctance to reveal, unlike earlier years when the culture of secrecy enforced by the previous management had people scared to say anything. There is nothing to hide about this being an imported item and it was common sense that it cost less to buy from a factory in China than to keep insisting that parts must be sourced in Malaysia only and force suppliers to make them here at uneconomical volumes. Nevertheless, 90% of the Exora’s parts are still sourced from Malaysian suppliers.

The BCM is, quite simply, a 'box’ that can be programmed to handle multiple functions which normally require separate controllers, eg for the wipers, the door locking system, the security system, etc. With each controller installed, it means having separate wiring and of course a certain amount of weight. The BCM unifies many of those functions in a single controller, thereby reducing the amount of wiring and space requirements and of course, cost.

A BCM can be programmed for numerous functions and in the case of the Exora, it handles 24 functions. Some are related to safety while others are for convenience. For example, there is a Battery Saver function for the internal lighting which is operational after 30 seconds and the cabin lamps also dim automatically, a feature which once used to be found only in expensive cars. The battery condition of the remote controller is also displayed on the instrument panel so owners need not worry about it suddenly dying.

One of the functions is to reduce the door lock system from burning out after excessive usage. Apparently, it was found that there were many instances where Proton owners had burnt systems and it was traced not to quality issues but because children played with the switches too much. So to eliminate such a problem, the BCM has a program that will disable the locks in OPEN position (for 20 seconds) if the system is operated 30 times non-stop.

Many of the functions, though, are related to safety. These include activation of the hazard warning lights if the brake pedal is applied suddenly at high speed and if the airbags inflate (signaling a severe crash), the doors will automatically unlock and the hazard lights will go on. There are also additional wiper controls, one of them to get the rear wiper to activate when reverse gear is engaged. And like many European models, a gentle press of the signal stalk (which is on the left side) will activate the signal lights for 3 seconds. This is for use when doing lane changes and promotes driving safety – provide Exora drivers make full use of it.

A few other features are for personal safety – eg unlocking of just the driver’s door with the first press of the controller (many systems will unlock all doors, not a good idea in lonely carparks), and there’s also a mode which leaves the headlights on for a while to make it easier at night.

Having the BCM also makes diagnosis and trouble-shooting easier; instead of having to test different control units, just one needs to be accessed. Of course, having many functions integrated in a single unit can also mean that many things will be disabled if the BCM fails but the Proton engineers said that the QC standards are high and such a problem should be minimal.

Safety is a top priority to all carmakers and with the Exora, Proton has put it a greater effort than before in this area, probably because a MPV would typically carry more people than a sedan much of the time. No less than 32 vehicles were crashed, nine of them cost a million ringgit each while the other 23 cost between RM200,000 and RM500,000 each. The million-ringgit units were the earliest prototypes and cost so much because they were pretty much hand-made since production parts were not available yet. Though it is a phenomenal sum spent, Proton still saved money because a lot of the work could be done by computer simulation whereas in the past, vehicles had to be crashed, studied and modifications made to fix weak areas and then another unit crashed. Nowadays, most of the engineering can be finalized with computer aids and the crash tests are for validation.

The Exora was crash-tested for 12 different requirements, optional and mandatory, all of which it passed. Besides ensuring that it can meet the legal safety requirements in countries that it will be sold in, Proton’s engineers also aimed for a high rating in the EuroNCAP crash test. EuroNCAP is an independent organization which conducts crash tests on vehicles sold in Europe and carmakers pay attention to its results which are also made public. While EuroNCAP has not actually crashed an Exora (and would only do so if it is sold in Europe and it chooses to evaluate the model), its criteria are available to manufacturers who can conduct their own crash tests and see how well their new model will fare. In the case of the Exora, the crash tests conducted in an independent facility in Spain showed that the MPV could score 4 stars (out of the maximum of 5) based on EuroNCAP criteria.

As the various pictures show, the structural integrity of the Exora is very good and the cabin area is well protected during impacts from the all sides. Rear-end crash tests are not presently a legal requirement by any country but Proton also had that done and more significantly, it had the vehicle put through a roll-over test – the first Proton model to ever be subjected to such a crash test. This test, which was done at 48 km/h, shows how well the upper structure of the vehicle is engineered to not only resist deformation and the roof pillars (especially the front two) have to be strong enough to support the body if it remains upside down, crucial to reducing fatalities. Passing the test not only requires that there is no collapse of the roof structure but there must also be no ejection of the dummies inside. That the company chose to do this 'optional’ test (which the Exora passed, of course) shows the importance it has placed in occupant safety and is commendable.

The structural rigidity of the Exora’s bodyshell is very high and exceeds the targets that were set. While most people won’t understand what torsional and bending stresses are all about, the important thing to know is that in torsional strength, the test result was 39% better than the target while bending strength was 88% better.

However, making a bodyshell very strong is not key to providing the occupants with the best protection because the impact forces are still tremendous. So the approach taken is to reduce the forces progressively before they reach the cabin. In earlier years, this was done by having crumple zones at the front and rear to absorb the forces but today, with computer-aided engineering, it is also possible to design the various structural members to absorb and transfer the forces around the cabin.

Proton has often been criticized for not providing airbags as standard throughout its range, though this is understandable because it is constrained by costs and Malaysians expect Protons to be cheaper than other cars. Nevertheless, for the Exora, this issue won’t be raised by buyers since dual front airbags are standard for both the M-Line and H-Line. Given that Proton intends for the Exora to be a major export model, putting in airbags as standard would not be a high cost since the volume of airbags purchased would be greater, thereby lowering unit cost. And as required by the new law, all seven occupants have seatbelts. Pre-tensioners are provided for the front seatbelts to make restraint more effective when the airbags deploy.

Other Passive Safety features (some of which are made possible by having the BCM) include the automatic activation of the hazard warning lights during sudden braking from high speeds and automatic unlocking of all doors when the airbags have been inflated. The latter, which is rare in vehicles in this price class, will aid rescuers in extracting the occupants during an accident.

In the area of Active Safety, which helps the driver avoid an accident, of note would be the high standards of handling which Proton engineers have learnt from Lotus Engineering. This is an aspect which Proton has often been praised for and over the past few years, its engineers have been gaining more and more experience so it is only natural that the Exora has superior handling characteristics which, as a test-drive showed, could be considered above-average for a MPV in this class.

The brake system has ventilated discs in front and drums at the rear with ABS standard. Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) is also present and this is especially important for a MPV because of the varying loads that will be on board at different times. ABS only optimizes braking and stability (and allows the driver to still steer the vehicle) by preventing the wheels from locking up and skidding on slippery surfaces but the brake pressure between front and rear is pre-set and does not change.

With EBD, there is dynamic adjustment of the brake pressure between the front and rear wheels according to the load distribution on board. This ensures that braking will be optimized and stable whether there is just the driver alone and the rear end is light or when there are seven people on board and the vehicle is at maximum load.

So the Exora is a very safe vehicle to travel in and this is something which will be appreciated by owners. More praiseworthy is that Proton has provided a number of safety features which are not standard in its price class and this is certainly a big change from the days when other makes gave more and Proton gave less.

Since the time the Waja was launched with the promise of having 'far better quality than ever before’ – and delivering the opposite – it’s been hard to be 100% convinced that a new model will have better quality. So new model reports have always had to end with something like '…depending on the quality’. Unfortunately, this stigma will take some time for Proton to get rid of and even with the Exora, there is still concern even though every unit shown to the media had excellent fit and finish. Make no mistake, this is the best model Proton has ever and it would be a real shame if continued indifference by suppliers with regards to quality diminishes the excellence. If the Exora can have consistently high quality and less complaints are heard, then this could be the model which finally rids Proton of its 'cheap but poor quality’ reputation.

For the Malaysian market, Proton expects to sell 3,000 to 3,500 units a month, a figure that sounds realistic, unlike those ridiculous numbers we used to be given for models like the Juara, Gen2 and Savvy which didn’t seem to have any basis. Proton’s MD Dato’ Haji Syed Zainal Abidin bin Syed Mohd Tahir understands that the domestic market which Proton once dominated is no longer enough to sustain it in the longer term and it has to look at the ASEAN region as its 'home market’ and by July, the Exora will be launched in Indonesia where it should do well since that is a MPV market.

As Dato’ Haji Syed Zainal told the media last week, the Exora marks the end of the journey of transformation but it is also takes the company past another milestone on the way to becoming a credible player in the auto industry. It’s a product which shows that a small carmaker can still do great things and this is especially impressive at a time when the industry globally is not in good shape.

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