What’s missing in Saturn coverage

A few months back, when General Motors could no longer escape its own incompetence, Saturn was put on the chopping block. It got an unexpected reprieve when Penske, an auto-parts maker, offered to buy it. The reprieve ran out today, when Penske backed out of the deal. So, now the press bids good riddance to Saturn in a number of eulogy-like stories.

All of these journalists seem to be missing a huge part of the story, though, with the kind of “don’t bother looking under the surface” reporting I can’t stand.

The AP story says:

Although GM and Penske reached a tentative agreement to sell the brand in June, the deal collapsed Wednesday after Penske was told by an unidentified manufacturer that its board had rejected a deal to make cars for the new Saturn.

And then… that’s it. Nothing. No information about who this “unidentified manufacturer” might have been, or why they didn’t want to deal. This is unfortunate on two counts: 1) it’s where the real story is and 2) it isn’t that difficult to figure out.

If you get your news from something other than traditional sources, you might have noticed a story still playing out around another tattered remnant of GM: Opel. In a probably increasingly common union of Canadian and Russian companies, Opel is about to be sold to Canadian car parts maker Magna and Russian bank Sberbank.

So what? Well, many people (including, evidently, all journalists) don’t realize that most of Saturn’s recent product line are just relabeled Opel models. This makes it extremely likely that the “unidentified manufacturer” who wouldn’t sell cars to Penske is Magna.

Given that they are both in the auto parts business, it might make sense at first glance why Magna wouldn’t want to help competitor Penske. But it gets more complicated as you think on it more. Why would Magna, who is just getting into the car business, pass up a huge (and highly loyal) built-in market for their new product by refusing to work with Saturn-under-Penske? I can only think of five possibilities:

  1. They are idiots. They have let hatred for a competitor blind them to a good opportunity. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I’d like to think that this isn’t the reason.
  2. They fear a long term merger. It seems to me the inevitable result of cooperation between Magna and Penske in Saturn would eventually result in a merger, hostile or otherwise. Magna may figure that they would be worse off for such a thing. I’m less sure of this reason, but it still smells wrong.
  3. They don’t care about the American market. As Opel is mostly a European brand, it may be that they have enough to handle without adding in the American market as well. This seems implausible, given that Penske would be doing all the work in America in this scenario, and also that Magna is a Canadian company.
  4. They consider the Saturn brand a liability. Read any of the previously linked eulogies of Saturn and most of them mention Saturns as being mediocre cars. It could be that Magna has convinced itself that pitching the Opel directly to America would work better for them. They could be right, but turning your back on millions of already loyal customers seems a might risky.
  5. They want Saturn for themselves. It could be that Magna was betting on exactly what happened: that if they didn’t deal, Penske would walk, leaving Saturn ripe for picking. Even if they only bought pieces of it (branding, customer databases, some dealerships), they would have a huge head start on penetrating the American market.

Of all these, the last seems more likely to me. Which means the current reports of Saturn’s death may be exaggerated.