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Bengal revived?


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Reuters news agency is reporting the following. It says GM is planning to build the Pontiac Solstice - and perhaps a Buick version. Maybe Bengal isn't dead?!

DETROIT -- General Motors out to prove it can build an affordable sports car, will announce early next year that it will produce the Pontiac Solstice, a two-seater that won design awards as a concept vehicle this year, company officials said Monday.

GM is also expected to build a Buick and a Saturn model derived from the small sports car, part of Vice Chairman Robert Lutz's efforts to add excitement to the company's car lineup, which has been criticized for being too bland.

"It gives the company some personality, and that's really what (Lutz) has been able to do. This certainly speaks to his legacy at GM," said Jeff Schuster, director of North America forecasting with J.D. Power and Associates.

Officially, GM has not confirmed production of the Solstice or the other two small sports cars -- the Saturn Sky and the Buick Bengal -- which already have won extensive coverage in automotive enthusiast magazines.

Mark Reuss, executive director of GM's performance division, told reporters last week that the business case for the Solstice was still being worked on.

GM will decide next year whether to build the Saturn Sky convertible, a four-seater that debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in February, Jill Lajdziak, Saturn vice president of sales, service and marketing, said in a speech to the Automotive Press Association of Detroit last week.


GM officials and news reports said late last year that GM killed the Buick Bengal concept due to potential production problems and escalating cost estimates. But company officials have said recently that GM has revived the Bengal, a concept roadster with 2+2 seating -- with a small third door behind the driver's seat -- that was inspired by golfer and Buick spokesman Tiger Woods, and it is expected to go into production.

None of the three cars is expected to arrive until 2006 at the earliest, despite GM's claims that it is speeding up decision making and product development.

"They need to come out sooner with that," said Rebecca Lindland, senior market analyst with Global Insight, formerly DRI-WEFA. "They've got a great opportunity with Bob Lutz out there, but they've got to get them out soon."

Lutz unveiled a coupe and convertible version of the Solstice at the Detroit auto show in January, just five months after the former Chrysler Corp. executive arrived at GM. Developed by a small team of designers, the Solstice went from a sketch on paper to a drivable concept in less than four months, part of Lutz's vision to streamline and speed up vehicle design and development.


Weeks after unveiling the rear-wheel drive car, which won the "Best in Show" award from industry magazine AutoWeek, Lutz reorganized GM's product development group.

That leaves analysts questioning why it will take another four years for the first of the cars to arrive.

"What's the delay?," Schuster asked. "If the decision is coming this early, why are we waiting?"

The delay could be due to the difficulty of selling the Solstice at Lutz's target price of about $20,000 and converting the front-wheel drive components used for GM's small cars to the rear-wheel and all-wheel drive sports cars.

Automotive analysts said they expect GM to target sales of 20,000 to 35,000 Solstices a year and perhaps 15,000 to 30,000 of the Saturn Sky. The Bengal is expected to sell in low volumes, perhaps around 10,000, they said.

Despite reducing costs by making three vehicles using similar parts, making the business case for the small sports cars is difficult, said J.P. Morgan Chase analyst David Bradley.

"In a period when the accountants are in charge, they generally cut those (sports cars) back. When the product guys take over, you get those things coming out again," Bradley said.

Alan Oldfield

BCA #15140

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