To most South Africans, Malaysians are people who invest in fancy high profile golf estates. Gauteng's Pecanwood, on the banks of the Hartbeestpoort Dam, is an example that comes to mind.
But manufacturers of high tech., well-built and stylish motor cars?
Doesn't ring any big bells...
Yet the development of the motor industry in Malaysia is well advanced, and its biggest carmaker, Proton, is just putting the finishing touches to an ultra-modern factory and headquarters complex in Tanjung Malin, 81 km outside Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.
And it comes complete with every facility workers could want, including a beautiful "city" of bungalows and townhouses set on the edge of forests and rolling hills.
It puts new meaning to the term "green fields development", and more than one of our party commented he'd be more than happy to live there!
Green fields site
Everything is new in the factory, which complements existing plants around Malaysia, with robots undertaking the most onerous or exacting tasks, including most of the finishes on the paint line.
It was amazing to stroll through the stamping shop - in South Africa home to deafening thumps and crashes as steel is bashed into shape - and hear nothing more than a distant "whoomp" from totally encapsulated machinery.
And a trip through the research and development centre, always the heart and sometimes the jewel in the crown of any motor manufacturer, revealed that there's nothing Third World about Proton.
Engineers hail from all over the world, and there's more than a hint of "Pommie accent" as experts from Proton subsidiary Lotus add their considerable expertise to the mix.
In fact, one of the highlights of our tour was half a day spent at the banked Proton test track, where we were given full rein to drive the two cars planned for export to South Africa - the Gen.2 and the Savvy - to our hearts content.
Plus the added bonus of a Lotus Elise two-seater at well over the limit usually imposed on the circuit ...
However, it was the Gen.2 and the Savvy to which we devoted most of our attention, the Lotus being there mainly to reinforce the strong connection between the Proton and Lotus brands in terms of engineering expertise and development, particularly in the suspension department.
Driving the cars
The Gen.2 is the first car Proton has designed from the ground up, previous models having engines, drive train, and sometimes whole platforms taken from other manufacturers, Mitsubishi in particular.
The name "Gen.2" itself refers to the fact that this is the start of a new generation of Proton models, although Proton's current models, such as the mid-sized Waja and the sporty Satria GTi, continue to sell in large numbers.
The first time I saw the car I was amazed at how modern the styling is. From the front there's a shield-shaped grille with Proton's new "tiger" badge prominently displayed, flanked by modern "teardrop" headlamps.
A big air intake under the grille in the vast colour-coded bumper hints at sporty performance, with inset fog lamps.
The side profile, too, has a distinctly sporting look, with a "rounded wedge" shape culminating in a fastback rear.
And the back view is stunning, with a large rear window, and big taillights flanking the liftup hatchback.
The interior is equally attractive, with the sporty look carried through via a smoothly-flowing dashboard and round instruments with red lettering, plus a metal-look bezel on the steering wheel hub and an aluminium-look centre console.
The seats are high back, with built-in head restraints, and offer a figure-hugging shape to hold one firmly in hard cornering.
Interior space is good, and I felt quite comfortable sitting in the back.
The Gen.2 is the first car to get a Malaysian developed engine, and it's a modern unit with double overhead camshafts and 16 valves. Power output from the 1 597 cc unit is an impressive 82 kW at 6 000 r/min, with 148 Nm of torque at 4 000 r/min.
On the road this translates into punchy acceleration and great flexibility.
However, it's the handling that impresses most. The Lotus engineers have endowed the all-independent suspension with great agility, making lane change manoeuvres quick and safe, without the lurching often associated with this move.
On the test track we easily topped the 140 km/h limit imposed on Proton's test drivers, and went around the banked corners at speeds in excess of 160 km/h at times.
Proton claims a top speed of 190 km/h for the manual with 0-100 km/h in 10.5 seconds.
Proton has some strange names in its stable, but the Savvy is in fact named after the English slang for "street wise", the name having been chosen from thousands of entries in a nationally-organised competition which gave the little car as first prize.
The 1.2-litre engine and 5-speed gearbox comes from Renault, the spunky little unit producing 55 kW at 5 500 r/min and 105 Nm at 4 350 r/min to give a top speed of 170 km/h and the zero to 100 km/h dash in 12.6 seconds.
Again, it's had a big dollop of Lotus expertise thrust into its development, and this shows in the handling. I was able to take the car flat through the banking - it got up to about 150 km/ - while on the open road it was able to easily keep up with the frantic Malaysian traffic.
The Proton Savvy
Suspension sees MacPherson struts and an antiroll bar at the front, with a torsion beam rear axle, and it impressed with its ability to change direction - even in long fast sweeps - without feeling as if it was about to fall over!
Styling is best described as masculine and chunky - though I believe it will appeal to women - with five doors in its compact shape, and room for four adults.
Like the Gen.2 it has a shield-shaped grille, and the whole car is painted in the same colour, grille included.
The seats fold flat to increase load space, and the interior is neat and stylish, with, again, the accent on sportiness.
The Gen.2 and the Savvy are definitely coming to South Africa - the Gen.2 starting this week and the Savvy towards the end of the year - but no final decision has yet been made about the Arena pickup.
This is based on the Waja saloon, with a 66 kW 1.5-litre engine and a car-like interior, plus modern styling and a 550 kg payload.
I briefly saw the car in Malaysia, although I had no chance to drive it.
That said, it would make a nice addition to the Proton lineup, especially for those who choose bakkies as daily transport.
With continuous calls to bring down the cost of car ownership in South Africa, the emergence of new product that's modern yet well priced has got to be good news.
Prices will only be announced when the cars are launched on Monday, but I am led to believe they will be very competitive.
The cars are certainly well made, well designed, and offer excellent performance and economy in their class. I look forward to driving them in South Africa.
Gen-2 1.6 (base) - R137 995
Gen-2 1.6 (highline) R148 995