NEW YORK/DETROIT (Reuters) – South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) has had talks with Chrysler LLC owner Cerberus Capital Management about a potential acquisition of the U.S. automaker’s Jeep brand and possibly other assets, people with knowledge of the talks said on Friday.
The emergence of Korea’s largest automaker as a potential bidder for at least part of Chrysler comes on the same day General Motors Corp (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) said it shelved its own pursuit of an acquisition of its cross-town rival.
Cerberus also plans to restart talks with other potential partners for Chrysler, including Renault-Nissan, the sources said.
Hyundai has expressed interest in Chrysler’s Jeep brand, but Cerberus would prefer to sell all of Chrysler rather than split off assets through a series of deals that would break up the company, the sources said.
Cerberus, Chrysler and Hyundai declined to comment.
Jeep is considered Chrysler’s most valuable asset. Although Chrysler has been readying a step that would allow it to sell off Jeep and its supporting parts business readily, any move to dispose of the brand would signal the end of Chrysler as a stand-alone automaker, sources said.
The talks over the future of Chrysler are playing out just as the U.S. auto industry makes its case to U.S. lawmakers for a rescue package for GM, Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Chrysler at a time when all three are burning cash faster than ever.
GM, which had been seen as the leading candidate to buy Chrysler, said on Friday that it set aside its pursuit of the acquisition in order to focus on preserving cash.
Bush administration officials last week rebuffed a request for some $10 billion for GM to fund its proposed merger with Chrysler in part, out of concern for the tens of thousands of jobs that would be lost as a result, sources have said.
One advantage of a Hyundai bid is that the Korean automaker would likely opt to preserve more of Chrysler’s U.S. operations, and hence keep more jobs, the sources said.
That aspect of the deal could be important because Democratic lawmakers who extended their majority in Congress in Tuesday’s election have made it clear that any federal rescue package would be aimed at preserving U.S. manufacturing jobs.
The auto industry and its political allies, including the United Auto Workers union, are pressing for the current Congress to take up a proposal for another $50 billion low-cost loans for the cash-strapped sector later this month.
SAND “ALMOST’ THROUGH THE HOURGLASS
Another source of pressure comes from Chrysler’s dwindling cash, people with knowledge of the situation have said.
Without new funding, Chrysler executives have raised concern about the automaker’s ability to finance its operations beyond the first half of 2009, according to the sources.
“Things are going to happen pretty fast now because the sand is almost through the hourglass,” said one person familiar with the talks.
U.S. sales of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands were down almost 26 percent this year through October, and Chrysler’s market share has slipped to just 11 percent in October, putting it in an almost dead-heat with Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) for the No. 4 spot in the U.S. market.
In a breakup of Chrysler, Nissan-Renault might consider buying the automaker’s Ram pickup truck production while Germany’s Volkswagen (VOWG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) is seen as a possible buyer for Chrysler’s minivan line, people close to the talks said.
Hyundai, which has 3 percent of the U.S. market, has aspirations to be a full-line auto manufacturer. Based on low pricing and an attention-grabbing 10-year warranty, Hyundai saw sharp growth in U.S. sales earlier this decade.
More recently, it has battled to change the public perception of its brand. Hyundai launched its first luxury model this year and has considered the idea of establishing its own luxury line, like Toyota Motor Corp’s (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) Lexus.
But a recent round of talks between Hyundai and Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) over a deal to sell Ford’s Volvo brand to the Korean automaker sputtered out in a dispute over the value of the brand, sources have said.
Hyundai also had a rocky relationship with DaimlerChrysler before Germany’s Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) sold Chrysler to Cerberus in 2007. In 2004, DaimlerChrysler announced it was selling its 10.5 percent stake in Hyundai.
Hyundai has its U.S. headquarters outside Los Angeles, a new $1.1-billion plant in Alabama, and an engineering center near Detroit. Its affiliate Kia Motors Corp (000270.KS: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) is building a plant in Alabama set to open in 2009.
Hyundai ended the third quarter with 4.5 trillion won, equivalent to about $3.5 billion at the current exchange rate. (Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim in Detroit) (Reporting by Jui Chakravorty and Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Andre Grenon, Carol Bishopric and Bernard Orr; +1-646-223-6033)