Ampera Is a Bright Spot at Troubled Opel

Written By Thomas Ponco on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | 6:30 AM

The first Sports Cars are considered to be (though the term would not be coined until after World War One) the 3 litre made in 1910 Vauxhall 20 hp (15 kW) and 27/80PS Austro-Daimler (designed by Ferdinand Porsche).

Published July 17, 2012

By Jeff Cobb

The Opel/Vauxhall Ampera has seen an encouraging start, delivering around 700 units in June, even as GM’s Opel division itself has struggled to make profit, and is undergoing reorganization.

Based on the Chevrolet Volt, and built in the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, the Amperas started rolling out in late February.

Although numbers from patchwork quilt of diverse markets are difficult to track, Opel spokesman Chris Rux emailed us from Europe yesterday with an approximate count on what Opel has said was Europe's top selling electric car in May.

"Including June we can see almost 3,000 registered Amperas in Europe,” he said, “so this means there were around 700 Amperas registered in Europe in June."

Ampera sales numbers are a combined total of UK-based Vauxhall-badged Amperas, and the European Opel variety. The Ampera is sold in most European countries.

More specifically, in the first quarter of 2012, it went on sale in Germany, Benelux, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Rux said in a previous interview last month, adding sales “will follow shortly” in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, and Norway.

In April, right-hand drive versions for the UK were introduced and last month, sales begin in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia.

The plug-in hybrid from GM has been seen as an elegant solution to reduce CO2 and increase mileage and Opel has said it has taken orders on most of its first year’s allocation of 10,000 units – and may get more if needed, although this has not been determined fully yet.

But meanwhile, Opel’s parent company GM has bigger fish to fry – or profitability to try and regain – and as good as it is, the Ampera by itself is not likely to right Opel's upside-down balance sheet.

Automotive News observed this week GM has suffered 12 years of losses with its European division and has thus far racked up $12.4 billion in losses.

In just the past three years, since GM's emerging from bankruptcy, Opel has lost $3.5 billion, blamed in party on a continually shrinking European auto market, excessive fixed costs and a negative image blamed by some on GM.

On July 12, Opel issued a press release that GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, 50, will serve as interim head of European operations as the company seeks to restructure.

"GM Europe President and Opel/Vauxhall CEO Karl-Friedrich Stracke today stepped down from his position to take on special assignments reporting to GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson," said Opel.

Akerson credited the man he is now replacing with Girsky as having done as good a job as possible.

“Karl Stracke worked tirelessly, under great pressure, to stabilize this business and we look forward to building on his success. We appreciate Karl’s many contributions to GM’s success,” said Akerson.

Meanwhile, Girsky must take an ax to Opel, offered Automotive News.

Further barriers to overcome include a European culture skewed toward job protection, over capacity at Opel, excessive production costs, developing a pricing strategy that doesn't compete with Chevrolet, and perhaps, Automotive News said, GM can hope to save money in its recent alliance with PSA Peugeot Citreon.

Girsky was already chairman of Opel's supervisory board since November, and will reportedly take the helm for several months while Opel looks for a new CEO, having gone through three of them in as many years.

"He certainly is an ideal candidate to fill that post, at least in the interim," said Mike Wall, an analyst with IHS Automotive, of Girsky. "He's about as well steeped in the issues that GM is facing as anybody in the organization. Having him in there for now is probably the best thing they can do because the concerns facing GM in Europe right now are significant."

Girsky, formerly a Wall Street auto analyst, was called in a Wall Street Journal headline this year "Mr. Fix-it" and he now gets to prove he was right in 2009 when he said GM should keep Opel for its strategic importance, and along with CEO Dan Akerson, urged GM away from selling Opel to Magna International.

Sticking with the fixing it theme, in June this year, he reportedly said at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Leadership Conference that Opel must become more fully integrated with GM to help it return to profitability.

"We're going to do what it takes to fix this," Girsky said at Wharton. "And it's important. Opel's a critical part of GM, and frankly we need to make them more a part of GM."

But observers further note that Girsky will have his work cut out for him, and industry analysts are openly wondering whether the "drowning" Opel division can be made to swim again.

Automotive News (subscription req'd)

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