It has been 20 years since the Proton Waja was launched. In 2000, Proton was just entering its 15th year of automotive production and during those years, they were dominating the Malaysian car market thanks to the laws that protect the national carmaker from imported rivals.
At this point, all of Proton’s line-up consisted of rebadged Mitsubishis and a single rebadged Citroen. The Saga/Iswara had been chugging along since 1985 with old but reliable technology and the Wira consistently topped sales charts.
In April 1996, the then fourth Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad challenged Proton to come up with their own design. The company invested almost RM400 million to build a state-of-the-art Research & Development facility to help with development. Later that year, Proton bought Lotus Cars for RM81 million.
It took Proton 54 months to develop the original Saga and 48 months to develop the Wira. With the Waja, the development took 36 months and by the turn of the millennium, Tun M’s challenge was becoming a reality. In August 2000, to coincide with the same month as Malaya’s independence, Malaysia’s first home-grown car was launched.
The Waja looked very contemporary and modern, which wasn’t bad for a young automaker’s first attempt. Despite an original Malaysian design, underneath it was still all Mitsubishi. It was powered by a 1.6-litre 4G18 Mitsubishi engine and shared a chassis platform with the Mitsubishi Carisma. Interestingly, the Carisma also shared a platform with the first-gen Volvo S40. You could say that the Waja was the first collaboration between Proton and Volvo, albeit indirectly.
Reviews for the car praised the Lotus ride and handling, a trait that became synonymous with most Proton models after that. However, there were some issues, most notably with the car’s quality and ergonomics as well as how heavy the Waja was which affected fuel economy greatly. Owners who bought the Waja also found their cars infected with Proton’s infamous power window failure.
Nevertheless, the Proton Waja was a success with 292,556 units sold between 2000 and 2012. During its 12-year lifetime, the Waja was sold with 3 different engines, the 1.6 4G18, the 1.6 CamPro and later, CPS as well as a Renault-sourced 1.8 litre engine. The overall exterior design remained the same however with a few facelifts.
It had found many fans, some of whom still kept their Waja even till today. At the same time, it was also criticised by detractors who thought it was a troublesome car. Twenty years later and Proton is no longer in the dominating position as it was back in 2000 but the Waja was a turning point for Proton, for better or for worse.