General Motors’ European subsidiary, Opel, is up for grabs. It says it needs $4.3 billion to survive the downturn, and private equity investors, along with Italian automaker Fiat SpA and parts maker Magna International — the Canadian company whose supply contract with electric sportscar startup Tesla Motors ended in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit last year — are vying this week to take a piece. At least one high-profile model is not on the table: the European version of the Chevy Volt that debuted just seven weeks ago at the Geneva Motor Show, the Opel Ampera.
The Ampera is being developed in the U.S., and GM remains firm on its plans to bring the Ampera to the EU. “We don’t expect any disruptions to our plans,” GM spokeswoman Natalie Johnson told us in an email today. Neither does the Opel team. Communications director Rene Kreis reiterated that Ampera production is on schedule to begin in late 2011.
According to J.D. Powers and Associates powertrain analyst Mike Omotoso, GM doesn’t have much choice in this. Referring to the Volt, he said, “They’ve pretty much staked their reputation on it.” And given that the Ampera is essentially a Volt with an Opel badge (plus some tweaks to the charging system to make it compatible with EU outlets), Omotoso said that as long as GM manages to go ahead with the Volt in the U.S., “they will sell it as the Ampera in Europe.”
What else is at stake in the Opel deal that might have repercussions for clean car startups? For Fiat, the deal would mean shared engineering and technology, but also possibly an expanded share of the European market and greater economies of scale. For Magna, which last week said it had no plans to buy a direct stake in Opel but would help the company financially, part of the interest may be in simply keeping one of its customers afloat. But more than that, it would put it on the road to becoming a full-on automaker, rather than a parts supplier.
For startups whose relationship with the company may otherwise have centered simply on supply (or litigation, in the case of Tesla), that could mean a new behemoth competitor with access to global markets and experience developing technology for alt-fuel vehicles. It unveiled a plug-and-play electric platform for automakers at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. With Opel, it could very well make and market that model itself.