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Autos Weekly: General Motors Goes Subprime

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It was another entertaining week in the auto business, as Ford (NYSE: F  ) posted another knockout quarter, Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) dealt with yet another defect-related subpoena, and Volkswagen threw its hat into the electric-car ring. Here are a few of the stories you might have missed.

General Motors: Eeek, subprime!
GM announced on Thursday that it had agreed to purchase subprime auto lender AmeriCredit (NYSE: ACF  ) for $3.5 billion in cash. While the announcement raised some eyebrows -- eek, a subprime lender! -- GM executives were careful to position this as a niche acquisition, adding additional leasing (and yes, subprime lending) abilities to its existing relationship with Ally Financial. Ally, of course, is built around GM's former captive financing unit GMAC, and is the automaker's key provider of dealer- and prime-level retail financing.

GM, of course, is preparing to go public. The company is widely expected to file its IPO registration papers right after announcing its second-quarter results next month. It's been suggested that GM would try to add a captive finance arm before then. But rather than buy up a major financing business, or build one from scratch, it now appears that GM will rely on Ally for the bulk of its financing needs.

What of its new acquisition? "Subprime" is still a scary word, but let's face it -- lots and lots of people have had their credit dinged in the last couple of years. GM -- and every other automaker -- wants to be able to sell cars to those folks as they get back on their feet. Having captive financing available will ensure that GM doesn't find itself at a competitive disadvantage in that space.

Is it a (somewhat) risky business? In a sense, yes -- but remember, it's a lot easier to repossess (and resell) a car than it is to foreclose on and auction a house. Given the realities of the auto marketplace and the economy, this is a reasonable move for GM to make.

General Motors: Eeek, Chinese spies!
More fun for the General: On Thursday, two people in Michigan were arrested by U.S. government agents, on charges that they had stolen documents related to hybrid technology from GM and tried to sell them to China's Chery Automobile.

The two, former GM employee Shanshan Du and her husband Yu Qin, both of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens originally from China, are accused of copying thousands of pages of confidential GM documents relating to the two-mode hybrid system used in GM's pickups and SUVs. They then offered the technology to Chery, presenting it as the property of their own consulting firm.

The documents, which are valued at more than $40 million, never actually made their way to China, according to government authorities.

Volkswagen joins the electric brigade
It's on: Volkswagen this week became the latest global giant to join the race to an electrified automotive future, confirming this week that it will have its first two electric cars -- a small "city" car and an electrified version of its Golf compact -- on sale in 2013.

Volkswagen, which has made no secret of its goal to become the world's automotive leader by 2018, believes that electric vehicles are a significant emerging space. It's aiming to dominate the EV segment with "the electric car for everyone," in the words of Chairman Martin Winterkorn.

But what will they use for batteries? While VW, like nearly all of the major automakers, is known to have been working on large-format auto-specific batteries with a number of partners, it's possible they'll go the small-cell route first. Former Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA  ) co-founder Martin Eberhard is now a VW consultant, and he recently hinted that the automaker was considering the use of the small laptop-type cells Tesla has successfully employed in its Roadster.

While Tesla has managed to get good range from those tiny batteries -- each Roadster carries nearly 7,000 of them -- their long-term durability is an open question. Most automakers are betting on more advanced, auto-specific "large format" batteries. Will Tesla's older-school technology prove more practical in the near term? Time will tell.

Is Chrysler actually making money?
Is ward-of-Fiat Chrysler actually making a profit, despite a serious dearth of new products? Apparently so: Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and its parent Fiat, said on Wednesday that the company would report an operating profit when its second quarter results are released next month.

This would be Chrysler's second quarterly operating profit during a year when it was widely expected to, at best, tread water. Although Chrysler lost $197 million in the first quarter, it somewhat surprisingly reported an operating profit of $143 million for the period, thanks to extensive cost reductions and synergies with its new corporate partner.

More Foolish coverage of the global automotive business:

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford, which is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. You can try Stock Advisor or any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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