It's been nearly half a year since the rumors started flying that struggling automaker Ford (NYSE:F) would lighten its debt load by selling off its profitable Hertz subsidiary. Back in May, the story started firming up when the New York Postreported that Ford was fast approaching a decision on the sale. Citing unnamed sources, the Post posited a likely sales price of as much as $4 billion for Ford's rental arm, although other analysts set the bar a bit lower, saying the unit would fetch only $2.5 billion.

Well, happy day! As it turns out, a bidding war erupted over the past few months. According to CNN-Money, which cited the Wall Street Journal, a private equity alliance among Bain Capital, Blackstone Group, Texas Pacific Group, and Thomas H. Lee & Partners has lost out. Unless Ford changes its mind at the last moment and decides to go forward with a Hertz IPO, it appears that a rival private equity alliance, this one made up of Clayton Dubilier & Rice, Carlyle Group, and Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER) Global Private Equity, has won the right to acquire Hertz with a bid of somewhere between $5.5 billion and $6 billion. What's more, Ford may be able to offload as much as $10 billion of its nearly $160 billion debt load on the buyers.

Which totally changes my previous thinking on this deal. Again, back in May, the possibility that Ford might sell Hertz for the same valuation it had paid to acquire Hertz in its entirety back in 2001 didn't make its original purchase seem like a terribly good investment. But if Hertz can fetch a 60-70% premium -- well, that's a pretty decent rate of return over four years.

Mind you, this isn't the end to Ford's problems. Even under the most optimistic scenario, it would still leave the parent company with about $25 billion in cash, up against about six times as much debt. And it would complicate the servicing of that debt by excising from the Ford conglomerate one of its few profitable parts -- which contributed $365 million in profits last year.

But at least Ford's trying something to fix its problems (becoming third in line to sell a hybrid doesn't count). After too many years of sitting around, watching its market share erode, and offering little more than ever-increasing cash rebates as its sole creative idea, doing anything creative is a step in the right direction.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company named above.