The recent launch of the Geely Preface sedan, coupled with the teaser of two mystery sedan models in Proton’s new product pipeline, has got Malaysians excited over the possible return of the Proton Perdana.
Not only could the return of the coolest and most beloved nameplates bring back memories of Proton’s halcyon days, but there is also a chance it could revitalise the flatlining D-segment market.
It is no secret that the once de facto choice of uncles has seen better days. Though it is hard to grasp the health of the D-segment market, now that the Malaysian Automotive Association (MAA) doesn’t release sales figures based on models, you only need to look at what’s on the market to see things aren’t as good as it once was.
Back in 2015, my publication teamed up with three others to attempt one of the biggest comparison tests ever. Nine D-segment cars were assembled, none of which was merely the “happy to be there” candidate.
Each entrant in the comparison was a sizeable player in the market. Furthermore, there would have been ten if anyone cared about the Chevrolet Malibu or Chevrolet for that matter. Even so, our ensemble of nine big uncle cars was more options that one could realistically consider.
Are you the typical uncle who just wants what your neighbour is having? The Big Three each had a big sedan to make you feel like royalty, with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Teana.
Want something less “uncle”? No problem, the Mazda 6 and its two Korean rivals, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima got you covered with a hefty dose of style and vigour.
Looking to move on from the usual Asian fare? Well, roll out the red carpet for a new European bloc in the form of the Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 508, and Volkswagen Passat.
At the end of the comparison, we concluded that there no clear winner, just a few key favourites. And most of us thought that the market was big enough to accommodate all nine. In retrospect, we couldn’t be any more wrong.
Half a decade later and a third of that party is no longer present. Both Teana and Mondeo were killed off by its makers’ new focus on SUVs. An all-new and sexy second-generation 508 was left in a holding pattern over the Malaysian market and has since disappeared from radar. Whereas sales of both Korean entrants have spiralled into near irrelevancy.
Interestingly, within those five years, the second-generation Proton Perdana (or the Accor-dana) made its way to the market and departed it. Though the Accord-based model sold in modest numbers, its sales numbers have been declining in its sunset years with 960 examples built in 2018 and 540 in 2019.
For comparison, Honda and Volkswagen built 932 of the soon-to-be-retired ninth-gen Accords and 1240 Passats respectively in 2019.
Despite its attractive styling and C-segment pricing, Proton’s big sedan didn’t have the features fellow D-segment competitors were packing.
You can’t blame Proton for that. The Perdana’s eighth-generation Accord underpinnings was already an era-behind by the time it made its way to the public sphere. It simply wasn’t designed to adopt new equipment and features that D-segment buyers were expecting.
There was supposed to be one guaranteed Perdana customer, and that would be the government sector. Yet, despite the government’s insistence that federal and state government officials should be travelling in “national cars”, things hadn’t always worked out as instructed.
Due to the rising cost of maintaining an ageing fleet of first-generation Perdanas, many state governments broke rank and sought out replacements from Toyota and even Mercedes-Benz. This reneging on the use of national cars was a national controversy when everyone else was tightening their budgets. This, of course, prompted Proton to find a solution for a Perdana replacement.
Proton first courted Nissan for a rumoured Fuga-based replacement. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, which led Proton to Honda and its soon-to-be-retired eighth-generation Accord.
However, despite the second-generation Perdana being a perfectly serviceable modern-day Perdana for government use, it doesn’t seem to make a regular appearance whenever ministers and senior government officials convene.
On the flip side, should Proton deliver an excellent product in its next Perdana, government officials might not be so haughty to dismiss it in favour of spending tax ringgit on imported luxury cars. They might show some actual patriotism, shock horror!
Speaking of which, considering that Proton itself isn’t technically a “national carmaker” and the next Perdana will be as homegrown as most locally-assembled cars, wouldn’t any locally-assembled car suffice so long as it supports Malaysian jobs and encourages more investments? But that is another discussion for another time.
Public sector aside, there is no denying that the third-generation Perdana will be returning to a Malaysian market with the champagne, but no party to pop it with. Not only are there fewer models, but the market for D-segment cars isn’t as big as it once was.
In 2015, 4,998 Honda Accords were sold in the second half of the year. Compared that to the last six months where Honda took the D-segment crown with 920 bookings of its tenth-generation Accord, with a whopping 40 per cent market share.
Granted, 2020 isn’t a stellar year for car sales. Though it is doubtful that the turmoil caused by COVID-19 had caused the whole segment to contract to barely half the number of Accords sold in 2015.
Our data suggest that the D-segment has contracted from around 15,000 cars in 2015 to less than 5,000 in 2019, with an average year-on-year decline of nearly 4000 buyers. That is two-thirds of the market gone. No prizes for guessing which segment charted the biggest growths - the SUV and national sedans, both of which doubled in size.
The rising popularity of SUVs isn’t the only factor that drove the D-segment into the ground either. Newer entry-level models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz have stolen a portion of the D-segment’s traditional buyers who are upgrading from their C-segment cars.
Nevertheless, there is a fine silver lining to all this gloom hanging over the big uncle’s car market. With consumer preferences shifting and the big players following, there is a huge vacuum in the D-segment market right now.
With the Toyota Camry likely to remain an import, the locally-assembled Accord and Passat are left to control the lion’s share of the market. In any market, there is always room for a third player, and the Geely Preface looks like a fine candidate of things to come.
Maybe, the Pre-dana might do what the Mitsu-dana and Accor-dana never quite achieved, redefining Malaysia’s D-segment in Proton’s image. Now, wouldn’t that be something to look forward to?