"There's got to be more in it for GM than just Chrysler," said Erich Merkle, an auto industry analyst with Crowe Horwath LLP, an accounting and consulting firm. "If you put two auto companies together, both that are losing money, both that are losing market share, you've just got an auto company that's losing market share faster and losing more money."
GM and Cerberus, which owns 80.1 percent of Chrysler, have held preliminary talks about an acquisition or other combination of the two automakers, according to a person familiar with the discussions who did not want to be identified because the talks have not been made public.
A tie-up between the automotive giants would be historic for the industry and solidify GM's position as the global sales leader, which it has been in danger of losing to Toyota Motor Corp. GM and Toyota finished 2007 essentially even in vehicles sold worldwide.
GM and Chrysler already have a joint venture with BMW AG making a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. While melding the companies could save money by combining management, engineering, manufacturing and administrative staffs, analysts say consolidation would bring more costs, and the rewards probably wouldn't come for several years.
That might be too late for both automakers.
Auburn Hills-based Chrysler, a privately held company, doesn't have to open its books, but it lost at least $510 million in the first quarter and $1.6 billion last year. Its sales are down 25 percent so far this year, the worst drop of any major automaker.
Detroit-based GM is burning up more than $1 billion in cash per month, with several analysts predicting it will reach its minimum operating cash level of $14 billion sometime next year. Sales are down 18 percent, and the company has lost $57.5 billion in the past 18 months, largely because of tax accounting changes.
All of this comes as U.S. sales have slowed to their lowest point in 15 years, making bankruptcy possible for all of the cash-strapped Detroit Three if things don't turn around soon enough.
Not exactly the prime scenario for a GM-Chrysler combination, said analyst Kevin Tynan of New York-based Argus Research Corp.
"Even though you're getting the rationalization of folding the two businesses together, it doesn't make sense at this time," he said. "There's got to be some sort of outside motivation for them to do that sort of deal, especially in this market."
That outside motive, analysts speculated, could be the federal government, which would inherit massive pension liabilities if either company went under.
In exchange for taking on Chrysler, analysts envisioned that GM could be given access to low-rate emergency borrowing from the Federal Reserve's discount window, used in normal times by banks. GM, though, said it is not going to the Fed at present.
"We're not actively pursuing anything at this time," said Greg Martin, GM's Washington spokesman.
The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that Cerberus might trade Chrysler for GM's 49 percent stake in GMAC Financial Services. Cerberus bought 51 percent of GM's former financial arm for $14 billion in 2006, but since then GMAC has suffered because of bad mortgage loans.
GMAC could look good to Cerberus now, Merkle said, because its insurance and auto businesses are profitable, and the federal government may take on its bad mortgages through the $700 billion financial bailout plan approved earlier this month.
If a merger were to go through, GM could move quickly to cut costs and save billions, said Van Conway, a mergers and acquisitions expert and partner with Birmingham, Mich.-based Conway & MacKenzie. The company would have to calculate whether it has enough cash to stay alive and fund the deal, he said.
If the numbers work, a lean, merged automaker would be in a strong position to make money once the U.S. market recovers and people start buying vehicles again, Conway said.
"You want to be the last man standing here because the car market is going to come back," he said.
Tynan estimated GM could save more than $5 billion a year by running the two companies as one, but said it could take years to realize the savings.
"Over the short term there's very little in the way of consolidation that could occur," said Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for CSM Worldwide, an auto industry consulting company based in Northville, Mich.
Renault and Nissan are still completing their consolidation, even though the companies joined in 1999, he said.
A combined GM-Chrysler would have too much factory capacity, too many brands and too many dealers, the analysts said.
"Adding three more brands (Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep) to their mix and another company that's very heavy in the area of truck production and sales, I don't know how that can be a good thing," Merkle said.
Neither GM nor Chrysler would confirm that they've talked, but each said discussions between automakers are routine. There also were reports Saturday that Chrysler was in talks with Nissan-Renault, and The New York Times reported that GM had approached Ford Motor Co. about a merger earlier in the year, but Ford wanted to stay independent.
Merger talk among the Detroit Three is not new. GM talked with DaimlerChrysler AG in 2007 about acquiring Chrysler before Cerberus bought its stake in a $7.4 billion deal. The talks fell through when GM decided it should concentrate on cost savings and efficiencies by globalizing its own operations.
Cerberus and Daimler confirmed last month that they are in talks for the private equity firm to acquire Daimler's remaining 19.9 percent Chrysler stake.
The Journal said the talks between GM and Chrysler are on hold for now due to recent turmoil in the financial markets.
The auto industry has been hit hard in recent weeks by the effects of the credit crisis, prompting GM and Ford to issue statements Friday to dispel the notion that they might be headed for bankruptcy.
GM and Ford shares were battered with the rest of the stock market this week, falling to lows not seen in decades. GM shares lost about half of their already-depressed value during the week, closing at $4.89 on Friday. Ford shares fell similarly, ending the week at $1.99.
Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.