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Holden eyes Opel

Premium brand: Opel's Insignia might be under consideration for Australia as part of an Opel-branded range.

Volkswagen the target as GM Holden studies Opel brand launch in Australia

14 Sep 2010

GM HOLDEN is investigating the feasibility of introducing Opel as a stand-alone brand in Australia for the first time.

General Motors’ continental European brand could become a direct rival for Volkswagen as early as next year.

Australia and China were named “priority markets” for exports of Opel models last month by Nick Reilly, who became chairman of Adam Opel GmbH in January, as part of the German-based car-maker’s drive to return to profitability.

Now Holden chairman and managing director Mike Devereux has confirmed Opel is under study for release in Australia and GoAuto sources say highly regarded models like the Corsa, Astra and Insignia could be released here within just 12 months.

“There’s obvious synergy between Opel and Holden,” Mr Devereux told GoAuto in Adelaide on Friday. “There could be a niche for that kind of brand here in Australia. I don’t know how we would position it, but we’re looking at it.

“Opel has made some statements recently about getting healthy and getting profitable in Europe, which I think they’re doing. They’ve also made some statements lately about export ambitions and obviously we’re talking with them about the potential (for Opel) here in Australia.

“So we’re talking to them, we’ll do something that makes sense if it makes sense and we’ll talk to you guys about it when we’re ready to do that.” News of Opel’s potential introduction in Australia comes 20 months after the reversal of GM Holden’s decision to relaunch GM’s luxury brand, Cadillac, here just two weeks before the new mid-size CTS sedan was due for release, in January 2009.

Holden blamed the global financial crisis for its 11th hour rethink on Cadillac, but insiders now say the improved economic climate and stronger Australian currency could give Opel a better chance of success here than Cadillac.

“Opel is a little different to Cadillac, which is a very high-end product, so the two things aren’t all that similar,” said Mr Devereux. “Opels are not Cadillacs in terms of price points or customers expectations. We have no plans to introduce Cadillac.”

52 center imageFrom top: Opel Corsa, Opel Astra Sports Tourer and Opel GTC Paris concept.

The plan to launch Opel here is made more logical by the disappearance of Saab from the GM stable. Now in the hands of Spyker, the Swedish brand was one of Holden’s now-defunct GM Premium Brands group, which also comprised Cadillac and Hummer.

While Opel’s British sister brand Vauxhall had an Australian presence in the 1950s, Opel’s introduction here would represent an about-face on Holden’s decision to discontinue models such as the Corsa-based Barina, the Vectra and, most recently, the Astra, in favour of Korean-built models from GM Daewoo.

Holden replaced the Opel-built Barina with a version of the Daewoo Kalos in 2005, while the Vectra made way for the Epica in 2007 and the arrival of the Viva signalled the end of the Astra in Australia last year. Although Holden attempted to localise each model to differing degrees, all models represented a significant shift downmarket from the German models they replaced.

The AH-series Astra coupe, hatchback and convertible range was axed, leaving the small Combo delivery van as the only remaining Opel-sourced model on sale in Australia.

GM Europe has since released an all-new Astra small hatch, joining the Vectra-replacing Insignia sedan, hatch and wagon, the latest Corsa light-car and the GT roadster. Opel also sells the Meriva and Zafira people-movers in Europe, along with the Combo, Vivaro and Movano vans.

Facelifted versions of those models could make Opel a direct rival for Volkswagen here, as it is in Europe.

The Corsa would compete with the new Polo (priced from $16,690), the Astra would rival the latest Golf (from $24,990) and the Insignia would take aim at the Passat (from $38,990).

Holden’s Korean-built models would remain cheaper, with a revised Epica mid-size sedan to continue to represent Holden at less than $29,000.

The all-new ‘Barina Spark’, to be launched at next month’s Sydney motor show, would open the Holden range with a sub-$15,000 pricetag and will be joined within 12 months by the Australian-designed, Korean-built Aveo light hatch. The Aveo will be sold elsewhere as a Chevrolet but will arrive here later next year to replace the current Barina, which should also remain cheaper than Corsa and Polo.

In between the Spark/Barina and Epica will sit Holden’s Cruze, which is currently priced from $22,990 drive-away with alloy wheels and enters production in Adelaide as a sedan in February, then in the third quarter of next year in hatch form, and both should undercut both the Astra and Golf.

Opel last week revealed a show version of its next three-door Astra coupe, dubbed the GTC Paris Concept, and next year will also introduce the Ampera plug-in hybrid, which is based on the Chevrolet Volt. That should go on sale in Australia in 2012.

The move could also facilitate the release of flagship performance versions of the Corsa, Astra and Insignia from Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), which could share federal certification, spare parts and other logistical costs with Holden.

Mr Devereux made it clear that GM’s European models – unlike its Korean vehicles – would not be sold here as rebadged Holdens, but as Opels.

“What Nick Reilly was specifically talking about was Opel-branded cars being sold in the international markets,” he said.

“Opel is looking not to supply cars for people to rebrand, which they do – we sell a Combo – but to actually to have Opel-branded vehicles in export markets.

“There are a number of countries around the world that are looking at the potential of Opel. They’re obviously talking about some other markets as well.” One Holden source told GoAuto the Astra would be a core model within the Opel line-up, which could be launched here before the end of 2011 if all goes to plan.

GM reversed its decision to sell the Opel business last year, before its application for government loan guarantees were rejected in June. Instead, GM Europe said it would work with state governments in Germany to return its Opel and Vauxhall brands to profitability by 2012.

Germany is both Opel’s and Europe’s largest single vehicle market, but GM hopes markets such as China and Australia – followed by South America and other south-east Asian markets – can improve its financial fortunes.

Opel has a long history with Holden. Both the 1978 VB and 1997 VT Commodore models were based on Opel Omega designs, while the sleek Calibra coupe was perhaps the most memorable Holden-badged Opel.

“Opel was the source of product for quite some time from an engineering standpoint beyond Commodore,” acknowledged Mr Devereux.

“And if you look at the Commodore, it also has some German engineering roots from the 1990s Omega platform.” Mr Reilly, who ironically once oversaw GM Daewoo’s Korean operations, told Germany’s Stern magazine in late July that “Opel is an icon of German engineering”.

“For markets such as China, Australia and South Africa, Opel can be a premium brand,” he said.

“We’ve got great, award-winning cars. The strategy is to rather focus on China, Australia and South Africa.

“We have to be able to compete with Volkswagen. If possible, we should have an even stronger brand. And in Germany we should be able to charge higher prices than the French or Koreans, but we will not attempt to copy BMW, Mercedes or Audi.”

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