- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

DETROIT | The last hope to stop General Motors Corp.’s Saturn brand from falling out of GM’s solar system appears to rest with some unknown automaker building cars for the dealers to sell.

GM said in its restructuring plan presented to the federal government Tuesday that it will only keep Saturn running through 2011, but it’s open to the possibility of spinning off the money-losing brand to retailers or investors. It’s one of many tough steps the Detroit automaker says are necessary as it seeks a total of $30 billion to ride out the worst sales slump in 26 years.

Chinese and Indian automakers, which have made noise about entering the U.S. market, would be the most likely suppliers, but GM says it hasn’t had any discussions with them, and Indian automakers either expressed no interest or wouldn’t comment.

Saturn’s dealers, with laid-back salesmen and no-haggle pricing, often match luxury brands’ scores in independent customer satisfaction surveys. Their locations could be a ready retail network for a foreign automaker to come to the U.S.

“The goal - from a product perspective - would be to find future vehicles that match the Saturn brand: fuel-efficient, safe, reliable and affordable,” Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak wrote in a message to customers this week. “From a retailing perspective, we would build on our core strength of unmatched customer service. The same hassle-free experience that is a hallmark of the brand could be taken to even higher levels.”

Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. and Tata Motors have had the greatest appetite for foreign acquisitions among India’s automakers and would be the most likely buyers, said Vaishali Jajoo, an auto analyst at Mumbai’s Angel Broking. But Tata has cash flow problems and Mahindra might not be a good fit, she said.

Tata spokesman Debasis Ray said the company wouldn’t be interested in the Saturn brand or its distribution network.

“We are happy as we are,” he said.

Mahindra declined to comment.

Calls were not returned by BYD, a Shenzhen, China, company that has touted goals to bring its electric and hybrid cars to the U.S.

GM started Saturn in 1990 as a small-car answer to Japanese automakers and billed it as a “different kind of car company.” Its new factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., had more flexible work rules than traditional GM plants and more autonomy for those who built the cars, known for their plastic body panels.

Despite a big fan following that drew thousands to annual reunions in Spring Hill, the brand never made money for GM.

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