KUALA LUMPUR: National car maker Proton will roll out its first fleet of hybrid electric vehicles in January for a pilot run before mass production begins in 2012, officials said Thursday.
Proton began testing prototypes two months ago in Britain and will conduct further tests in Malaysia before launching a fleet of 30 to 50 vehicles in mid-January for use by the government, said Nordiana Nordin, the company’s head of government liaison and infrastructure.
“We have a target of 2012 for mass production but it’s subjected to the fleet test program,” she told The Associated Press.
State-owned Proton is diversifying its business to boost its fading fortunes. It returned to the black in the financial year ended March, but its domestic market share has dwindled to under 30 percent from more than two-thirds just over five years ago due to greater competition.
Proton’s hybrid car is being developed with its British technology partner Fraser-Nash Research Ltd., its British unit Lotus, and South Korea’s LG, officials said.
Ilham Shamsul Ibrahim, head of Proton’s electric vehicle project, showed a prototype of the hybrid at a seminar on green technology outside Kuala Lumpur.
It has a 400cc gasoline engine that powers a generator and recharges the electric battery when it is depleted. But unlike current hybrid cars such as Toyota’s Prius that switch between gasoline engines and electric motors, Proton’s model cannot run on its gasoline engine due to its small capacity, he told entrepreneurs at the seminar.
The car can travel as far as 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) on one full petrol tank and a fully charged battery, depending on road conditions and speed, Ilham said. It will have a top speed of 87 miles (140 kilometers) an hour and can be recharged from a regular home socket, he said.
The government plans to build 10 charging stations, mostly around its administrative capital Putrajaya, as part of the pilot test for the car.
Ilham acknowledged that the green car industry in Malaysia faced considerable challenges, including lack of infrastructure and issues with batteries - long charging times, high cost and short life span.
On the other hand, the hybrid car - if it takes off - will see Malaysia cut its dependence on fossil fuel, help relieve the government’s burden of hefty fuel subsidies and reduce polluting emissions, he said.
He said Proton is in talks with several suppliers in the U.S. and South Korea about manufacturing the batteries locally to cut cost. He couldn’t elaborate on the estimated price and production details.
Proton’s senior managers couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is Proton’s adviser, recently said the hybrid vehicle would likely be sold for under RM100,000.
The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic are the main hybrid cars available in Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s largest passenger car market with some half a million vehicles sold each year. Hybrid cars account for less than 1 percent of the market.
The government recently said it would abolish import and excise duties for a year on hybrid and electric cars manufactured or assembled locally as part of efforts to promote Malaysia as a regional car hub.
Toyota and Honda announced a price cut of up to 25 percent for the Prius and Civic following the tax exemption.
Proton last year inked a deal with Netherlands-based Detroit Electric to make electric cars. Ilham said Proton is supplying vehicles to Detroit, which will rebadge and sell overseas. - AP
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