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Owners of Saturns, Hummers grapple with threat of demise Dealers reassure them about parts, service

Owners of Saturns and Hummers, who were drawn to those vehicles in part because of their unique images, are facing the prospect of those brands driving into history.

While the owners may feel disappointed, experts and dealers say they shouldn't worry about being able to obtain service or parts for their vehicles in the future, even if the brands themselves vanish.

General Motors this week unveiled a sweeping plan that included a shake-up of its product lineup. The automaker said it would phase out Saturn by the end of 2011 but would listen to offers to spin off or sell the distribution network before then.

GM also said it would decide by March 31 whether to sell off or eliminate Hummer. It put Saab up for sale and will make Pontiac a "niche" brand with fewer products.

Saturn has two area dealerships, both owned by West Herr Automotive Group. They are among the top 10 Saturn dealerships in the country, according to West Herr.

Local Saturn owners said they were taken aback by GM's decision to cut ties with the brand.

"I was really shocked," said Joel Kumro, a 19-year-old college student who lives in Derby and drives a 2007 Aura.

Like some other Saturn owners interviewed, he was drawn to Saturn partly because he comes from a family with GM connections. Kumro also liked that Saturn had some cool-looking vehicles that he didn't find among other GM brands and was intrigued by the following the brand has developed among its loyal fans.

"I thought it would be something valuable for GM to keep on in the long run, with some changes," he said.

Kumro said he is not too worried about replacement parts being available in the future, but he wonders if they might be more expensive if those cars are no longer built.

Scott Bieler, president of West Herr Automotive Group, said GM will continue to stand behind Saturn's warranty coverage and other programs, and make available parts and service for Saturn vehicles.

He also noted that a spinoff of Saturn Distribution Corp. is being explored. "An independent Saturn would still have its great retailers, and it will continue to source current products from GM through 2011, and if successful, SDC at that point would source products from other manufacturers," Bieler said in a statement.

Eric Ibara, director of residual value consulting for Kelley Blue Book, also said he didn't think future parts and service would be a problem if Hummer and Saturn were to go away. The parent company would still be around, he said, and providing parts and service is a lucrative business.

One negative impact, Ibara said, could be convenience, if a customer is used to going to a certain dealership for service and that dealership closes.

Steve Cappellino, who owns the local Hummer franchise in Clarence, said his customers "shouldn't lose any sleep."

His service area on Transit Road also handles work for his neighboring Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Saab franchises. So even if GM eliminates Hummer, he said, his service area will remain in operation and serve Hummer owners.

When GM has eliminated previous brands, such as Oldsmobile, it has made parts available for years later, he said. "That's never been a problem with any other brand that they've had and no longer have."

And if Hummer is sold -- GM is talking to two potential buyers -- Cappellino's dealership would remain the local sales outlet.

But if the brands are phased out, what about the residual value for those vehicles? Ibara, of Kelley Blue Book, said history has not shown much of a difference. "What we've found is the values stay on the same depreciation curve that they're on."

Saturn vehicle owners are left to size up the future of the brand.

Aaron Payne, a 25-year-old Tops Markets employee who leases a 2007 Aura, said he is not sure he would buy another Saturn if the brand were no longer linked to GM. "I'm a pretty loyal GM customer," he said.

And like some Saturn customers, he can currently tap into a discount available to GM employees and their family members.

Payne said he would be disappointed if Saturn went away, but he is more worried about the survival of GM, noting that lots of employees and retirees depend on it.

Amanda Rebmann, a Lancaster resident, said she was drawn to the 2008 VUE by its fuel efficiency and its small size. "I've really enjoyed my Saturn," she said.

But looking forward, she is not sure Saturn would have the same appeal to her without its GM connection. She expects to remain a GM customer for life.

GM's plans for Saturn and Hummer are part of a larger overhaul of the automaker's U.S. dealer network. It plans to reduce the number of GM-affiliated dealerships by about 25 percent by 2012.

"You can't close 1,500 dealerships and not have Western New York affected to some extent," said Brad A. Birmingham, a partner with the Hodgson Russ law firm who counts auto dealers among his clients.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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