Story by Adam Barrera

Last week, in front of Congress and C-SPAN, Detroit forgot to bring their collective homework to class. As if a governmental grounding wasn’t enough, socially clairvoyant Saturday Night Live filled in Detroit’s blanks with a parodic infinite timeline of exorbitant quarterly bailouts. Today, the Detroit Three’s real roadmaps robbed the SNL skit of truth. Ford isn’t even asking for cash up front, just access to a loan in case the downturn worsens. Chrysler needs $7 billion by the 31st to stay in business — and isn’t speculating beyond that figure. Unlike SNL’s parody, the General asks for just two tiers of assistance in the most detailed — and realistic — outlook offered by the industry.

Both Ford and GM base their case on the assumption that auto sales will rally to hit 12.5 million units industry-wide in 2009. However, there is no insurance against worst-of-the-worst conditions. GM’s contingency plea comes in the form of an additional $6 billion loan option should auto sales fall to 10.5 million next year.

GM expects the loan to enter repayment as soon as 2011, and to be fully repaid by 2012. In GM’s version of a worst-case scenario, the company will at least break-even by then. If GM benefits from a market upswing, the government could receive a return on its investment as well.

Calculus. Projections. Forward-looking statements when most people in the industry aren’t sure of what tomorrow will bring. The intangibles are harrowing when so many employees’ futures are at stake. Luckily, the most important barometer of success is also the most tangible: the product on the ground. During a conference call Tuesday, GM CEO Rick Wagoner and COO Fritz Henderson clarified product and marketing strategies that they hope will pave the path to profitability.

Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC will serve as GM’s four cornerstones going forward. Pontiac will not die outright; instead, its delusions of full-line grandeur (ahem, G3) will be cast aside. Instead, Pontiac will be distilled into a purveyor of niche athletic vehicles to be sold within Buick and GMC dealers.

Hummer has been under “strategic global review” — read: for sale — since July. SAAB is now immediately subject to the same “review,” and the Swedish government may wind up taking temporary control of the company.

Saturn faces a different, more nebulous, future. During the conference call, one analyst asked if shuttering the brand and converting existing dealers to other GM channels was a possible outcome. Neither Henderson nor Wagoner would comment. At Saturn’s launch, franchise agreements were radically different from other dealer contracts. Saturn dealers also operate atypically. For instance, Saturn sales staff are salaried, not commissioned, and vehicles are tagged with “no-haggle” menu pricing. Cultural incompatibility, coupled with an oversaturation of Cadillac/Chevy/BPG dealers in metropolitan areas, makes conversion unlikely.

Why was GMC spared the axman’s blade? GM maintains that GMC is destined to become a purveyor of crossovers. Today, every GMC has a cognate in another GM brand. Why was GMC one of the four brands selected for special growth support? Can GMC grow without autonomous product? These are the tough questions that Congress will likely push aside in favor of trite jabs based on tired cliches.

SpeedSportLife will liveblog the carnage right here, employing Northern California’s finest, cheapest Cabernet Sauvignon to soften the seriousness of the proceedings. You can even watch me toss insults and Keystone carcasses at my roommate’s flat-screen via the highmileage.org Stickam feed. Post your drinking game ideas in the comments!

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Zerin Dube

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