How did the Perodua Kembara conquered Malaysians’ love for the SUV?

CY Foong · Oct 03, 2020 11:00 AM

While the whole nation is abuzz with the Proton X50, there are some who would probably be more interested in the upcoming Perodua D55L. The still-unnamed SUV based on the Toyota Raize/Daihatsu Rocky will be Perodua’s successor to their previous SUVs, the Kembara and the Nautica.

For now, we’ll take an off-road trip in the Kembara. It was so well-loved that we speculated Perodua might revive the name for the production D55L. It captured Malaysian hearts to venture the great outdoors or at least travel on unpaved tarmac for those who work at some oil palm plantation.

The Kembara was Perodua’s third model following the Kancil and the Rusa. The name Kembara might not be based on an animal unlike the rest of Perodua’s early models but it did fit the little SUV’s off-roading capabilities.

Stylish in the concrete jungle

The Kembara was based on the first-gen Daihatsu Terios and was introduced in August 1998. It was the first national 4x4 back when it was still okay to call Perodua a national carmaker. It even debuted the recognisable Perodua logo as the Kancil and Rusa had their own designated logos.

Starting at RM 45,000 for the standard 1.3 EX with a 5-speed manual transmission, the Kembara was easily the most affordable brand-new SUV in the market.

This paved the way to a new generation of Malaysians who wanted a stylish and affordable SUV. The closest competitor at the time would be the ageing but reliable Suzuki Jimny SJ130.

The Kembara was launched with 3 variants, the aforementioned manual EX, the automatic EX, and the top-of-the-range deluxe model known as the GX which was only available with a 4-speed automatic. The Kembara was powered by a 1.3-litre Daihatsu HC-EJ SOHC 4-cylinder engine that produced 83 PS and 105 Nm.

The Kembara came in 6 stylish colours when it was launched with red, white, silver as well as a two-tone colour combo which are metallic red, metallic blue, and metallic green with silver side garnish, front, and rear bumper.

Funky 90s upholstery pattern indeed

That stylish looks and affordable price allowed Perodua to capture 71% of the 4x4 market by August 1999 with 10,888 units sold up to that period. This was an impressive achievement as the Kembara was launched just a year after Malaysia was hit by a financial crisis and the fact that the local 4x4 market had been falling.

Rugged in the natural jungle

The Kembara was a favourite among the off-roading community Credit

To show off the Kembara’s off-roading capabilities, Perodua took part in the Trans Borneo Expedition in 1998 and 1999. The 1998 event was pretty small for Perodua with only 6 Kembaras participating in the expedition.

Don't be fooled by its cutesy looks...

But in 1999, Perodua became the main sponsor for the event which became the Perodua Trans Borneo Kembara Expedition. Perodua entered the event with 12 units of its plucky little off-roader. The event saw 49 participants, both foreign and local, go through 10 days covering around 2,000 km of some of the treacherous terrains from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu.

Those who took part in the challenge were amazed by the performance of the 1.3-litre engine and the tiny body size which saw the Kembara easily conquering some of the tough obstacles.

Adding a boost of power

It was used by PDRM too but sadly didn't make the cut in our list of cool police cars (Credit)

While the Kembara remained a popular car in the SUV segment (thanks to the cheap price and nearly no competitors), it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing with poor fuel consumption, lethargic performance, and high noise levels being some of the loudest complaints.

So, in 2003, Perodua launched the Kembara DVVT with a brand-new 1.3-litre 4-cylinder K3-VE engine with variable valve timing. It was one of the first Perodua models with DVVT which became a badge of pride on later models.

This improved the Kembara in providing good low-end torque which helped to answer the lacklustre performance of the older Kembara. Power output has been boosted to 86 PS and 120 Nm. As the commercial puts it, it is the "future".


In 2004, the Kembara was given an upgrade. Called the CT Elegance, it was the top-of-the-line Kembara model and comes with leather upholstery, an exclusive “Klasik Gold” colour which was the only colour option, ABS and dual airbags.

It even had a newer grille design which was later carried over to the other Kembara variants called Kembara CT Aero.

The Kembara ended production in 2007 with 77,889 built. By then, the SUV market was burgeoning unlike in the late 1990s. You could probably say the Kembara paved the way for the success of SUVs in Malaysia despite being launched at a difficult time economically and from a social standpoint.