Seeking an Alternative
Saturn cancels entry-level Ion small car replacement
By RICK KRANZ | AUTOMOTIVE NEWS
| Published 04/17/06, 9:01 am et
NEW YORK -- General Motors has canceled the vehicle that was supposed to replace the Saturn Ion and is urgently seeking an alternative.
As a result, Saturn dealers are likely to be left without an entry-level vehicle for several months next year, company officials acknowledge.
Last summer, GM unveiled its design for the Ion replacement at a press preview, where it was overwhelmingly praised by journalists. But GM has dropped that design execution.
"We're exploring different alternatives," said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn general manager, who was interviewed last week at the New York auto show. "We're not ready to talk about that today."
General Motors might consider rebadging a vehicle from its overseas product portfolio, such as the Opel Astra. Lajdziak did not discuss the Astra's suitability, noting only that GM is looking for "a collaboration." GM, she said, "is looking globally for a design and an architecture to leverage. We are still working through the strategy."
This uncertainty comes at an awkward time for GM, which is spending lavishly to rejuvenate the Saturn brand with new nameplates. In New York, the company showcased the Sky roadster, Aura sedan and Outlook crossover. The next-generation Ion was supposed to be the company's key entry-level vehicle.
Last week, GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz said most of Saturn's core products would be rebadged Opels. If so, the Astra would appear to be a candidate for the U.S. market. The Astra is produced in Europe and Brazil.
But GM officials have not confirmed that they want to introduce the Astra to U.S. consumers. Nor have they said whether a U.S.-market Astra would be produced in North America, Brazil or Europe.
GM also has not decided whether the Ion name will survive. And the company has not disclosed the next vehicle it plans to produce in Saturn's assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. The Ion, produced in Spring Hill, ends production at the end of this year.
"As of now, there's no replacement for Line One," said GM spokesman Dan Flores. "Line Two is the Vue, and that will continue."
The Ion's replacement now is expected to go into production late in 2007 as a 2008 model. The gap between the end of Ion production and the launch of the new vehicle could be eight or nine months, said Lisa Hutchinson, Saturn brand and product director.
To fill that gap, Saturn must decide whether to boost production of the 2007 Ion this year to provide sufficient inventory next year.
Even if GM boosts production, dealers still may have 60 to 90 days with no Ion inventory, Hutchinson said.
Saturn dealer John Bergstrom, owner of Bergstrom Automotive in Neenah, Wis., said dealers haven't been told what will replace the Ion. "We know there'll be a new version of it, but we don't know what it'll be or when it's coming," he said.
This month, Saturn met with dealers to unveil the mid-sized 2007 Aura sedan and the Outlook crossover. That "helped ease their concern about the products they will have to sell in that timeframe next year," Hutchinson said.
In 2007, production of the Aura and Outlook is expected to be in full swing, so dealers ought to have adequate inventories, Hutchinson said.
Could GM's indecision over the Ion's future short-circuit Saturn's revival? Said Lajdziak, "We are not going to let that happen."
Jamie LaReau and Lindsay Chappell contributed to this report