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Saturn, Opel Cozy Up

General Motors Corp. has begun a 7-year strategy of consolidating its Saturn and Opel brands to provide a slew of European-styled vehicles for consumers on both sides of the ocean.

General Motors Corp. has begun a 7-year strategy of consolidating its Saturn and Opel brands to provide a slew of European-styled vehicles for consumers on both sides of the ocean.

By 2014, all vehicles for Saturn and Opel will be interchangeable, says Carl-Peter Forster, president-General Motors Europe.

“From now on, whenever we develop a vehicle, we have to make sure we can export it to the U.S., and vice versa,” Forster tells Ward's at the Paris auto show.

“The idea is to be very flexible,” he says, with each new model capable of meeting global regulations. It means the Opel Astra and the replacement for the Saturn Ion are the same vehicle, as are the Opel Antara and next Saturn Vue cross/utility vehicles.

The Astra as the Saturn Ion replacement “is absolutely the right vehicle,” says Bryan Nesbitt, who oversees design for Opel and Saturn brands from Europe. Their designs will be similar, Nesbitt says. It is not yet known if they both will be dubbed Astra.

General Motors Corp.'s plant in Antwerp, Belgium, will build the Saturn models, with production to begin at the end of 2007, Ward's learns.

The 3- and 5-door Astras (no sedan is planned) to be badged Saturn will have low volumes initially. Physical changes to the body shop in Antwerp are under way to accommodate necessary changes to meet North American regulations for the Saturns.

Meanwhile, GM uses the Paris show to unveil the production model of the Antara to compete in Europe's growing CUV segment. The Antara will come to North America as the next-generation Saturn Vue within the next year, Ward's is told.

The 5-passenger, South Korean-built Antara hails from the same architecture as the 3-row, 7-passenger Chevy Captiva/Daewoo Winstorm, but with a more dynamic suspension.

Design-wise, “you won't see much difference between the two vehicles (Antara and Vue),” Nesbitt tells Ward's.

The Saturn Sky roadster, built in Wilmington, DE, is being exported to Europe as the Opel GT, starting next year.

Cadence-wise, some models still are a generation away from transatlantic sharing, including the Opel Corsa and Vectra. The new Corsa for Europe, also on display at the Paris show, will not cross the ocean, says GM Chairman Rick Wagoner.

“From a price-value perspective, the (Chevrolet) Aveo has done very well as far as meeting that entry-car buyer, high fuel-economy segment. So right now there are no plans to bring the Corsa to the U.S.,” Wagoner tells Ward's.

“But I certainly wouldn't rule it out,” he says, given the auto maker's global approach to product development that opens up “options like that, that historically we probably wouldn't have had.”

It is expected to make the voyage with the subsequent generation.

Meanwhile, the new Corsa appears on the verge of being a hit in Europe. Forster says the auto maker pre-sold 73,300 units as of September, giving it the “highest pre-sold status of any GM vehicle in recent history.”

The small car went on sale Sept. 1. Initial production is “dealer cars,” with distribution that began in October on a country-by-country rollout.

Moving up in size, the counterpart to the Opel Vectra will be the Saturn Aura in the future. The Aura, which went on sale July 31, and the Vectra, which was freshened last year, ride on different architectures and are markedly different in design, especially the headlamps and fascias.

Nesbitt says he likes the idea of the Vectra wagon crossing the pond as an Aura wagon for Saturn, but notes wagons still are difficult to sell in the U.S.

One potential exception to the model sharing, Nesbitt says, is larger vehicles — namely the all-new Saturn Outlook CUV for North America. Salable production begins this month from GM's new Midsize Crossover Architecture, formerly known as Lambda. “There is still a market in North America for larger vehicles, which Opel doesn't have,” Nesbitt says.

He says he is not sure if the Opel brand will be able to support a vehicle of that size in five years when the next-generation Outlook arrives. But, “all other (Opel) vehicles could be Saturns,” he says.

Nesbitt says Opel began a design transformation three years ago with the launch of the Astra, and he believes Saturn buyers have an appetite for European styling, albeit with less content than Europeans demand.

Americans would appreciate Corsa design, for example, but would be less willing than Europeans to pay for amenities such as a heated steering wheel on such a small vehicle, he says.

Overall, Opel and Saturn are a good fit, Nesbitt says. “We looked at how to leverage the (Opel) brand in the U.S.,” he says, concluding vehicles could be developed to meet both regional needs.

He says Vauxhall is a retail channel for Opel, and Saturn seems to be following a similar path.

Then there is the decision as to which side of the ocean — or both — will build the vehicles.

Forster says, “80,000-120,000 sales is the threshold at which point it makes sense to build on that side of the ocean.”

Below that, vehicles can be shipped to meet market demands, he says.

Global allocation of the high-volume Global Compact Vehicle Architecture (Delta) products will be sorted out in the next 12-18 months, Forster says.

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