20 years ago, Proton wanted to enhance its brand image and be distinct from other low-cost automakers (typically from East Asia) by having a technological flagship in the form of a 2-litre mid-engined sportscar.
At that time in the early 2000s, the carmaker still owned Lotus Engineering and therefore had advanced engineering and development expertise and resources to draw on.
The sportscar was expected to be launched in 2003, about 3 years from the time the project was revealed and designated ‘Proton Ultimate’ (PU). The short period for development – normally, new models take about 4 years of R&D – was said to be possible for two reasons.
One was that it was intended to be a low-volume model with more specific parameters to meet than a broad-based mass-market car like other models Proton offered. Secondly, much of the engineering would be a departure from conventional processes and use composites and lightweight materials.
The programme – internally known as ‘Project Sepang’ – was believed to have been activated in late February 2000, with the chassis concept already decided upon. This was to be the ‘Monaco’ chassis that had been shown by Lotus at the Frankfurt Auto Show.
However, it was not to be a case of offering a ‘Proton version of a Lotus sportscar’ or vice-versa. Lotus wanted to make sure there was clear distinction for the two models. Lotus eventually came out with its model that was the modern Europa in 2006.
In Proton’s case, the objective was to produce a technologically advanced sportscar that would be affordable, particularly to Malaysians. The price target mentioned then was at the RM150,000 level. The positioning of the sportscar was not stated at that time although it seemed likely that it would be similar to what the Japanese call ‘specialty cars’ – models like the Toyota Celica and Nissan Silvia.
Engine options considered included the 204 bhp Petronas E01 engine and a new Proton V6 which had a capability of being boosted to 200 bhp. It was thought that Proton would want to use the Petronas engine – the result of a project which began in 1997 – as there was unhappiness about how it spent a lot of money paying Mitsubishi for its engines.
Although the car would have a lot of high-tech and use lightweight materials, its cost was still expected to be ‘a quarter of what it would cost us to develop a high-volume sedan’, according to Proton’s CEO then. This would be achieved by making use of many Proton components; one example given was using the brakes from the Wira.
These components, made for Proton’s high-volume models cost less as there were economies of scale – which Lotus did not enjoy with its much lower volumes.
The planned total production run for the PU was projected to be 10,000 to 15,000 units over a model life of about 5 years. By the time the sportscar was due for production, Proton was expected to have invested in a new line at its factory (in Shah Alam, Selangor) which would have much of the manufacturing process being different from conventional methods.
However, the investment would not be substantial and the ‘generous profit margins’ possible with a sportscar would more than offset the hardware costs.
At least one prototype was believed to have been completed with an ‘American engine’. It is not known whether the prototype is still in existence or, like the historically valuable Satria Cabriolet prototype, disposed after Geely became a co-owner of Proton.
Unfortunately, the PU program never continued to completion. Other developments within the company probably diverted attention, and the leadership also changed so priorities changed.
Nevertheless, Proton did offer some limited-run performance products developed by its R3 division – like the Satria R3 and Satria Neo R3 Lotus Racing Edition (shown below).