GM can spin Saturn into a success, via Opel

There's a very happy ending available for Saturn dealers that General Motors brass should be seriously discussing: Handing the keys to the Saturn brand to GM's German affiliate, Opel.

GM doesn't have an extra billion or so dollars to buy out Saturn dealers and shutter the brand. And GM could be in legal trouble if it starves Saturn to death. So, the obvious and best thing for GM to do is merge Saturn and Opel.

Tomorrow and Friday, Saturn's Franchise Operations Team, consisting of eight dealers, will be in Detroit to discuss Saturn's future with GM brass. This would be an excellent time for them to lobby for the Opel option.

Here's why it makes sense for Opel and Saturn to be merged:

• Saturn has a nationwide dealer network with 425 or so stores with the right customer demographics -- younger buyers who often prefer import brands -- for Opel's vehicles.• GM could transfer all design, engineering and marketing responsibility for Saturn to Opel and wipe a brand off its North American books. Saturn dealers would change to Opel, and the Saturn badge would be retired. But, unlike Oldsmobile, dealers would not go out of business.

• Chevrolet dealers would be ecstatic. They've resented Saturn from the start for draining away resources they thought should have gone to Chevrolet.

•Saturn's former Spring Hill, Tenn., factory could also be transferred to Opel, giving the German brand a plant in the dollar zone that is already cranking out vehicles and could be quickly tooled up to take on Volkswagen's new Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.

•With Ford revamping its U.S. lineup to include many of its popular European cars, Opel could be the GM brand that best competes with the new Ford Fiesta, next-generation Focus, C-Max, Kuga and others. Opel would also compete with MINI, Smart and Alfa Romeo when it returns.

•Opel already has a foot in the door at Saturn dealers with the Astra hatchback, which is built in Germany for Saturn. Opel could flesh out its U.S. offerings with European vehicles such as the Corsa small car that would compete with the Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Korean entry-level cars. On the upper end, the Insignia would be a competitor to the Volkswagen Passat, Toyota Camry, Mazda6 and Nissan Maxima. Showroom eye-candy could include the Astra Twin Top and the Tigra convertible.

Opel sold cars in the United States through Buick dealers from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s.
For years, Opel has wanted to sell its cars once again in the United States under its own name. Taking control of Saturn would be the quickest and least expensive way for Opel to return to the U.S. market with a brand of fuel efficient, German-engineered cars that would not directly compete on price or image with other GM vehicles. Despite Opel not selling a car here under its own name, the company knows the U.S. market.

Opel's U.S. history dates from the late 1950s, when Buick dealers sold the brand. Opel is probably best known in the United States for the classic early '70s GT sports coupe, dubbed "the poor man's Corvette." In the mid 1990s, a rebadged Omega appeared here as the Cadillac Catera. That car brought entry-level buyers to Cadillac and helped pave the way for the successful CTS.

Killing Saturn would be a monumental mistake that would alienate many of the most loyal buyers GM has. I'd bet Saturn fans would be cool with a transition to Opel.

American roads are going to look more like those in Europe in the coming years as expensive fuel forces U.S. drivers to downsize out of SUVs and trucks and as small, powerful and clean diesel engines find their way back into passenger cars.

Merging Saturn and Opel is a golden opportunity for GM to leverage its global resources and do the right thing financially, legally and morally by its dealers. It also positions GM to grab younger buyers who think import brands are cool.

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