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When Saturn dies at the end of the year, a major part of GM's green offerings do as well

GM publicly states that its future is green vehicles, and is prominently featuring the Chevy Volt as its "vehicle of the future".  More so than any other automaker, GM has strove for a green image.  President Obama has praised such efforts, calling on all the domestic automakers to produce more green vehicles.

However, in an ironic twist, GM's own efforts to survive may result in massive cuts to its hybrid efforts -- cuts which may go unnoticed by the public as GM insists that it will be as green as ever.  As part of its survival plan, GM plans to cut the Saturn brand by the end of 2009.  Not only had Saturn seen a resurgence in interest and popularity in recent years, but it was also composed an integral part of GM's hybrid efforts.

The Chevy brand led total GM's hybrid sales with 5,838 units sold in 2008, but Saturn was a close second, thanks to mild hybrid versions of the Saturn Vue crossover and Aura sedan.  In total it sold 3,205 Saturn hybrids in 2008, with another 2,411 spread across the other brands (the hybrid Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon).

Aside from image, one dilemma is the question of technology.  Most of Saturn's hybrid technology is based on common cross-brand efforts, but there is still a significant amount of custom engineering, both in test data and design.  The easy solution would be to save the technology from Saturn -- thousands of hours of engineering effort and vast stores of test information -- to redeploy and reuse under the surviving brands.  However, that's not what GM is doing, according to sources.  A prominent source within the company states, "There will be no technology transfer from Saturn.  There is a lot of doubt internally as to what comes to production. Everything is in the air. Everything goes through the government."

Mark LaNeve, GM’s North American sales chief, however denies that it’s a done deal, insisting that the technology might still be saved.  He states, "Any of the four core brands could get our technology.  There’s not a hybrid in Saturn that is exclusive to Saturn. Nothing changes there, unless someone who buys Saturn says we want us to continue building hybrids for this brand and we agree to do it."

He declined, though to comment on whether Saturn-specific hybrid design or test data would be transferred.

After the death of Saturn, GM will offer the Chevrolet Malibu mild hybrid, Two-Mode versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, and three Two-Mode SUVs.  Current mild hybrid technology from GM delivers a slight boost to acceleration and a 20 percent fuel economy boost.  Two-Mode is a step up, providing the ability to drive the vehicle on electric power alone, and allowing a 30 percent gain in fuel economy.  The SUV-ready four-wheel-drive version of Two-Mode won't be ready until 2011, though.

While GM's green image may take a hit, analysts believe, though, that its CAFE-readiness (fuel standards) won't be badly impacted.  The main reason why is that GM will be phasing out the Pontiac and Hummer brands, the latter of which is known for poor fuel economy.

Some analysts like John O’Dell, an analyst at Edmunds.com who tracks green cars, can't believe that GM would toss Saturn's technology.  They believe that GM will come around and redeploy the hybrid powertrains in other vehicles.

Some, like Dan Becker, director of the nonprofit Safe Climate Campaign in Washington, though, warn that if GM relies too much on the Chevy Volt while neglecting its hybrids, that it will fall behind its competitors and suffer in sales.  He says that GM must keep up with hybrid technology from Ford, Toyota, and Honda.





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