Despite Woes In U.S., GM Thrives Abroad General Motors has had a rough few months, filing for bankruptcy and restructuring. But many of the U.S. auto giant's international operations are posting strong gains. In Latin America, brand recognition and price are key factors contributing to GM's success.

Despite Woes In U.S., GM Thrives Abroad

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For months we've been hearing stories of doom and gloom about General Motors: bankruptcy, dealerships closed, jobs lost, massive restructuring. Well, believe it or not, people want GM cars and they're eagerly buying them in large numbers in other countries. In Latin America last year, seven different countries set GM sales records.

From Cuenca, Ecuador, Sean Bowditch reports.

SEAN BOWDITCH: It's been a busy morning at Mirasol, Cuenca's main GM dealership. Saleswoman Marianna Moreno hasn't moved from her spot at the front door. She spent hours just greeting people and fielding questions.

Ms. MARIANNA MORENO: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWDITCH: In a showroom, customers thumbed through glossy brochures and listen intently to sales pitches.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

BOWDITCH: Outside, Luz Santandero is looking over a Chevy pickup. She traveled almost two hours by bus just to check out this particular truck.

Ms. LUZ SANTANDERO: (Through Translator) I've never had a car, but my husband wants one. And I think he's gotten good recommendations about the car, the brand, everything.

BOWDITCH: She says it's by far the most popular truck where she lives and adds that she's not even considering another brand. Mirasol is one of Ecuador's most successful GM vendors and one of a handful that has helped GM maintain a strong presence here. In fact, strong may be an understatement. GM's market share in Ecuador currently stands at about 44 percent - it's highest of any country in the world.

Mr. PEDRO TORRES (General Manager, Mirasol): 2008 was our best year in history.

BOWDITCH: That's Pedro Torres. He's the general manager of Mirasol in Cuenca.

Mr. TORRES: We had it growing from 2007 about 35 percent, so if we can repeat that in 2009, it will be great.

BOWDITCH: Torres reports that so far his 2009 sales are up slightly. So why are operations like GM Ecuador thriving? For starters, Chevrolet — the most common GM vehicle in the country — has remarkable brand recognition. That's due in part to the fact that GM has had a presence here since the 1920s.

Then there's the price, says economist Marcelo Vazquez. He chairs the economics department at the University of Cuenca. The majority of GM vehicles sold in Ecuador are in fact GM in name only. Many are assembled here and the parts are either imported from Asia or made domestically. This gives them an edge, he says.

Professor MARCELO VAZQUEZ (Department of Economics, University of Cuenca): (Through Translator) That fact means that you can count on the vehicles being affordable — which is the secret to the company's success — and relatively cheap in the local market, which has led to considerable growth in demand.

BOWDITCH: In January, the Ecuadorian government introduced a new set of import restrictions, including steep tariffs on cars. But GM, with its Ecuador-based assembly plant and parts production, remained relatively unaffected. In fact, the restrictions have allowed GM dealers to maintain lower prices at a time when imported cars are only getting more expensive.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BOWDITCH: But GM's uncertain future is a concern for some. In the parking lot of Supermaxi, one of Cuenca's biggest grocery stores, Andres Pena stands near his new Chevrolet Grand Vitara. It's his fourth Chevy.

Mr. ANDRES PENA: My car is the Chevrolet for life.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. PENA: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWDITCH: He says if Chevrolet were to disappear, he would be the first to wear black. For his part, Mirasol general manager Pedro Torres is circumspect. Given GM's uncertain future, he admits his business could change overnight. But there is a hint of optimism in his voice.

Mr. TORRES: We're seeing a new General Motors without debt, with money, with new ideas to work on, so let's see what they do.

BOWDITCH: So for now it's business as usual for Torres. But he, like many others in the industry, will be closely watching General Motors as it transitions to its new life.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Bowditch.

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