Magna International emerged on Friday as the early favorite to acquire General Motors unit Opel after German officials said the Canadian car parts group had submitted a better plan than rival bidders Fiat and RHJ .

At a briefing in Berlin, Magna co-Chief Executive Siegfried Wolf laid out the company's Opel concept in detail for the first time, confirming plans to team up with Russian partners but leave existing GM Europe managers to run the new group.

Crucially, Wolf vowed to retain all four Opel plants in Germany and avoid mass job cuts, key criteria for the government in Berlin ahead of federal election in September.

Under our concept the German sites are seen as assets and we want to keep as many jobs as possible, Wolf said. There is a lot of know-how within the German Opel plants.

A German government official, who requested anonymity, said there was an emerging consensus in Berlin that Magna had made the most attractive offer.

There is a rather clear preference for Magna's offer emerging within the government, the official said, before a Friday meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and top ministers to discuss the rival bids.

Earlier, Roland Koch, the premier of Opel's home state of Hesse said on German radio that the Magna offer was closest to the hopes and wishes of German politicians and the 25,000 Opel workers based here. He called the Fiat offer disappointing.

In addition to Magna and Italian carmaker Fiat , Belgium-listed industrial holding company RHJ International submitted an offer for Opel by a Wednesday deadline.

The Magna concept focuses heavily on new ideas, new markets and new clients, while the others focus more on rationalization, Koch said.


Both General Motors and the German government are in a race against time to finalize a sale of Opel, which is headquartered in Ruesselsheim, near Frankfurt, and traces its roots in Germany back to the 19th century.

The U.S. government has given GM until June 1 to restructure its operations and prove it can be viable without state aid, or face probable bankruptcy.

The decision on who gets Opel will be taken by GM but the German government will also play a big role because it would likely supply billions of euros in financing guarantees to the eventual winner.

The bidding process for Opel has also been colored by a politically-charged debate in Berlin ahead of the federal vote.

Merkel's conservatives are keen to preserve Opel jobs but want to limit the state's role in any rescue.

The rival Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's partners in an uneasy right-left coalition, say the government should do all it can to save Opel and have sought to portray her as insensitive to the fate of its workers.

Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne has led a formidable public relations campaign in recent weeks, racing around in a Maserati and his trademark wool sweaters to meetings with top government officials.

He was quoted in an Italian newspaper on Thursday as saying Fiat's chances of getting Opel were better than 50 percent.

Marchionne wants to create the world's second biggest carmaker, after Japan's Toyota <7203.T>, by adding the assets of Opel and British GM unit Vauxhall to a stable that includes Fiat's brands and those of U.S. carmaker Chrysler.

The company denied reports on Friday that it planned 18,000 job cuts across Europe, saying the figure was below 10,000 -- in line with what sources have said Magna and RHJ are targeting.


Marchionne's plan is seen by some in Germany, including Opel unions, as overly ambitious and unwieldy.

In addition, Fiat is believed to be seeking some 7 billion euros in government support for its scheme, about 2 billion more than Magna and RHJ say they require.

Magna's Wolf said that under his company's plan, GM and Russian partner Sberbank would each hold a 35 percent stake in Opel, with Magna taking 20 percent and employees 10 percent.

Russian carmaker Gaz would be an industrial partner and the goal would be for Opel-GM to gain a 20 percent market share in Russia in the short-term and eventually sell 1 million vehicles there.

Wolf suggested that job cuts would center on Opel sites in Belgium and Britain. The Magna consortium would invest 500-700 million euros in Opel, he said.

(Additional reporting by Philipp Halstrick in Frankfurt, Andreas Moeser in Berlin, Dmitry Sergeyev in Moscow, Gilles Castonguay in Milan; Editing by David Cowell)

(Writing by Noah Barkin)