Our national day is right around the corner, giving us time to pause to reflect on everything we have achieved over the past 62 years. We may be a country of diverse cultures (nowhere is this more evident than in the sheer variety of different food we eat), but while we’ve had our differences, ultimately we all want to succeed as one entity – and that’s the glue that binds us together.
It also got us thinking – what exactly is a Malaysian car? For us, a Malaysian car needs to resonate with everyone, young and old, and it also needs to reflect our best (and sometimes worst) traits. And why limit ourselves to Malaysian-branded cars? This is a nation of diversity, after all, and there are cars from other countries that have made a difference in our lives, too.
So, without further ado, here is a list of our top 10 most Malaysian cars.
10. Perodua Kancil
We start off the list with a car that practically all of us have driven, at least a handful of times. Yes, the Perodua Kancil was immensely popular in its own right – it was extremely affordable, making it a default first choice for graduates or just people who wanted a cheap runabout. But for many years it was also widely-used in driving schools as a learner car, lending itself to abuse from pimply teenagers.
See one on the road today and you’ll be flooded with memories of the heavy unassisted steering, the clunky gearshift and the long and easy-to-master clutch pedal travel – all the better for ascending that 10% slope without stalling or rolling back. The Kancil has since been replaced by the Viva and Axia, but for many of us, the tiny hatchback with a mouse-deer on the nose lives on in our hearts.
9. Datsun 120Y
The next car is here for much the same reason as the Kancil – before the latter’s proliferation, it was the Datsun 120Y that was the learner car of choice, so it’s a car some of our older folk will be familiar with. Even if you’re not, most of us have/had at least one grandfather who used to own/still owns one.
The ubiquitous sedan was also an integral part of Nissan’s success story in Malaysia. So popular was the brand over here that its vehicles have been seared into our consciousness, whether it’s this car, its “AWAS! ABSORBER BUMPERS” 130Y/Nissan Sunny successor, the Vanette (the pasar malam van) or one of the earlier pickups (usually a mobile vegetable shop). This car is just as Malaysian as any Proton or Perodua.
8. Proton Gen.2
In terms of local content, however, it’s the Proton Gen.2 that rules the roost. While the earlier Waja was billed as Malaysia’s first indigenously-designed car, it was based on the Mitsubishi Carisma and initially used the only-God-knows-how-old-this-is 4G18 1.6 litre engine. The Gen.2, on the other hand, was all in-house, right down to its CamPro mill – it was the first application of Proton’s very own four-pot.
Sure, there were many faults, the hollow plastics, awful ergonomics and the infamous torque dip being just a few. But it was blessed with tidy road manners and, more than anything else, it showed that Malaysia was capable of building cars under its own power – and whatever your opinion of Proton is, you’ll have to agree that it’s something not a lot of other countries can boast.
7. Toyota Alphard/Vellfire
A fairly recent phenomenon, but the Toyota Alphard and Vellfire twins are nevertheless an integral part of our fabric. These rolling, leather-trimmed mansions may have been Japanese refugees, but so well-received were the grey-imported units that came in by the literal boatload that UMW Toyota Motor had to step in, bringing the maxi-MPV in officially starting with the facelifted second-generation Alphard.
And while all cars can be stereotyped, the Alphard and Vellfire attract a certain type of buyer – particularly a black Vellfire with heavily-tinted windows. And of course, it’s no longer reserved for the filthy rich – these cars have been here for so long now that there are plenty of new, used and reconditioned vehicles at every price point. A perfect example of a naturalised citizen.
6. Volvo 240
Some of you probably don’t know this, but Malaysia has been making cars way before Proton was set up in 1985. Soon after the birth of the federation in 1963, local vehicle assembly was seen as a viable means to develop the nation’s economy. That particular trail was blazed by none other than Volvo, which set up its Swedish Motor Assemblies plant in 1967.
And it was this, the Volvo 240, that propelled the brand to stardom. Back then, you’d see as many of these safe, boxy tanks as you did Mercedeses and BMWs, and they were also usually driven by more discerning well-heeled individuals. This image carried on to the following models, the 740, 850 and S70, and to a certain extent it still holds true with today’s sleek, ultra-modern Volvos.
5. Mitsubishi Pajero
Believe it or not, there was a time when SUVs were bought solely by those who needed the extra space and off-road capabilities. And before the likes of the Honda CR-V democratised the body style, the only mass-market SUVs out there were proper, burly 4x4s. Of the dozens on the market in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mitsubishi Pajero was by far the most prolific.
By then, Mitsubishi’s partnership with Proton meant that the diamond brand’s presence in Malaysia was limited to commercial vehicles like the Pajero, but it didn’t matter. The big, square, handsome beast was loved by everyone from construction managers to upwardly mobile professionals, and the first and second generations were so popular that at one point, most Malaysians referred to all SUVs as Pajeros. They were also popular with the police, with minimally-marked dark blue examples being a common sight at one point.
4. Toyota Hilux
And so, to the vehicle that replaced the Pajero for much of its clientele. As a variety of factors pushed prices of 4x4s well beyond the reach of most buyers, they turned to another rugged and practical body style – the pick-up truck. As with the Pajero, it was the Toyota Hilux that defined the segment, and it wasn’t long before the term “hailak” was used interchangeably with “pick-up”.
The seventh-generation model was an especially big hit – with its car-like curvaceous lines and proven Toyota reliability, it kickstarted the trend of trucks being used in the city as regular daily drivers, rather than being relegated to construction sites. The fact that the Hilux is still high up the list of most-stolen vehicles in Malaysia is testament to its continued popularity.
3. Toyota Vios
What would our comments section be without the complaints of high prices? Protectionist measures safeguarding the national carmakers pushed prices of foreign cars upwards, and once-popular brands like Honda and Toyota were considered too expensive for most people. But Toyota changed all that with the Vios, which broke into the (relatively) affordable B-segment market as a handsome and comfortable offering.
At the time, the Honda City was an ancient relic based on an old Civic, and even when it migrated to Jazz underpinnings soon after, it was the better-looking Toyota that won the popularity contest. But the second-generation “dugong” model really entered the mainstream, with a plethora of variants and the infamous TRD Sportivo version that kickstarted Malaysia’s craze for bodykits.
2. Perodua Myvi
Perodua’s proclamation of the Myvi as a “true Malaysian icon” and the “love of the nation” smacks of self-indulgent pompousness, but it’s hard to deny the impact this diminutive hatchback has had on us. Topping the sales charts nearly every year since it was introduced back in 2005, it has reached the hands of more than a million customers from all walks of life, so it’s very likely that you’ve driven some form of it.
Back when the company was still rebadging kei cars, the larger Myvi felt like a breath of fresh air, with its funky organic design and fresh engines. It was a car that the average Joe could aspire to own, and while performance was modest, it was easy to extract, so budding boy racers were able to target far more expensive supercars on highways – the car’s reputation as “Malaysia’s fastest sports car” isn’t for nought.
1. Proton Saga
It really couldn’t have been anything else, could it? The evergreen Proton Saga remains the Malaysian car, for no other reason than the fact that it was the first. More so than even the Myvi, the original Mitsubishi-based model touched the hearts and minds of everyone at the time, and its bargain price and lengthy production period meant that it outlasted all of its supposed successors.
But the Saga nameplate was also the seed of Proton’s first comeback, as a new budget model in 2008. In stark contrast to the company’s previous style-above-all-else philosophy, the more pragmatic approach taken on this model made it a genuinely practical sedan and a worthy competitor to entry-level Peroduas.
The latest facelifted model continues to carry the torch with a more sophisticated look, some welcome new features and a conventional automatic gearbox that gives the car a straightforward driving experience that’s more in keeping with local tastes. A car for the people, again.
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