Last week, Proton launched the Exora Prime and Prevé for the Thai market at the Thai Motor Expo, and we got a chance to chat with Proton’s deputy CEO Datuk Lukman Ibrahim on the sidelines, quizzing the DRB-Hicom top exec on the company’s export plans and strategy for the Thai market.

Thailand is the Prevé’s second export destination after Australia, and Lukman was keen to emphasise the Thai market’s importance to Proton. “We always viewed Thailand as a test of competitiveness,” he said, referring to the Japanese “big boys” that have an iron grip on the market, especially the Corolla/Civic segment where the Preve is competing in.

“Thailand challenges us to be competitive. To be a global brand, it’s the perfect testing ground,” he said, joking that Proton’s emphasis on Thailand means “you’re gonna see me more here.”

Fully agreeing, this writer asked about Proton’s strategy to stand out in marketplace, as the obvious method of undercutting rivals in price while offering better specs alone should not be sufficient. Even the Koreans, armed with successful global products, have not made any impact in Thailand.

Lukman acknowledged that and explained that the Koreans probably had a bad start in Thailand, and as we all know, recovering from a situation is harder than starting from a clean sheet. Before the eco-car wave, the Savvy stood out for its low price and the Exora has been well regarded. “Proton had a good start and we should leverage on this – continuity,” he said, thanking the previous management for laying the foundations.

As for the unique strategy question, Lukman explained that Proton is guided by QCD (Quality, Cost, Delivery) and “not just point of sales, but point of service” is very important in Thailand. To be in the hearts and minds of people, Proton will focus on the “caring aspect” with personalised treatment and service instead of ad blasting.

“When the ownership experience is good, the word of mouth will be good,” Lukman reasons. An example of this caring aspect is the provision of a courtesy car of the same level as the customer’s car. For instance, an Exora owner will get a courtesy Exora, because his lifestyle required an MPV in the first place.

Besides that, “Proton needs to be more visible in Thailand” and a network expansion program will see the dealership number rise to 35 by early next year from the current 31. All will be 3S centres.

With established auto player Phanakorn as its sole distributor, Proton has decent presence in central and north east Thailand, but “there’s more room for growth in south Thailand”. In the south, Proton currently has just four outlets in Hatyai, Trang, Phuket and Surat Thani.

Proton is in the top-10 passenger car brands sales chart in Thailand, but the recent eco car wave (affordable models from big brands) and first car tax rebate scheme (only for CKD cars) have affected things a little. Currently, Proton sells around 3,000 cars a year in the Land of Smiles.

With the launch of the Exora Prime and Prevé, Proton expects Thailand to contribute a bigger slice of its export total. Sales targets for the Prevé is 100 units per month, while the top spec Exora Prime is expected to add 20 to the MPV’s current 120 units per month.

Back in October, we revealed to you Proton’s export and product plans for the near future, and all that (Prevé hatchback, UK and Indonesia markets are next) remains unchanged, although Lukman did let slip some hints of more to come.

“Next year there will be a new model,” he said, adding that Proton also needs to work on the D-segment as there’s no more Perdana. “Proton wants to be in all segments,” Lukman declared, while also hinting at an SUV. No dates were given, although the new model in question should be the Prevé hatchback.

A C-segment hatchback would be handy for a renewed assault at the UK market, where Proton needs to tune its engines to meet Euro 5/6 standards. “We had a good start last time (in the UK) and the challenge is how to get back to the levels of competitiveness there. By the second half of next year, Exora and Prevé will be ready for UK, Insyallah,” Lukman said.

Proton is also studying the left-hand drive Middle East market. Earlier this year, we saw LHD Prevés undergoing testing locally.