SYDNEY – Adam Opel, which markets its brand here using the theme “affordable German,” this month launches sales in Australia for the first time.

Selling through 17 dealers, with eight more expected next year, Opel’s No.1 European-brand target is Volkswagen, which sold 44,740 vehicles in the local market in 2011. It is followed by Peugeot (5,220), Renault (3,622), Citroen (1,415) and Skoda (3,501).

Among the market’s Japanese brands are Mazda (88,333), Subaru (34,011) and Honda (30,107).

Very deliberately, there is no mention of GM Holden, Ford or Toyota. Opel hopes to price and position the brand in Australia as vaguely premium, a cut above the mass-volume domestic auto makers.

That is a massive task, given Opel’s precarious history, its shrinking European market share, shaky reputation, overcapacity problems, accumulated losses over the past 12 years and the turnover of senior management, with four CEOs since 2010.

Bill Mott, Opel Australia’s American CEO, prefers to use the word “aspirational,” rather than premium, when describing Opel’s local positioning.

“We are not calling our brand semi-premium per se,” he insists. “A premium brand is, say, an Audi or Mercedes. The word we like to use is ‘aspirational.’ Our vehicles are cars that people aspire to buy, but are affordable.”

Opel’s road to Australia was long and arduous. The auto maker sold its first car in 1899 and by 1937 was Europe’s largest auto maker. Through the 1970s and 1980s, a combination of high style, a comparatively broad model range and decent quality saw sales climb beyond VW and Ford in Europe.

By 1993, Opel reached a peak of almost 13% of the European market. Then began a slow but inexorable decline that inevitably, and increasingly, limited new-model investment. The situation accelerated after General Motors hung out the “for sale” sign in 2010 as it emerged from its U.S. bankruptcy.

GM was within weeks of signing an agreement with Canadian parts manufacturer Magna when new management decided Opel was too strategic a part of its global business to be sold.

Opel last year built 1.2 million passenger cars: 385,000 Astras, 342,000 Corsas and 144,000 Insignias. That was enough for Opel/Vauxhall to squeak by with just 6.1% of sales in Europe.

What had been a peak 18.8% German market share in 1982 slipped to 7.3% through August of this year, well behind a now-dominant VW (21.9%), Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW.

Today in Europe, Opel lists nine model ranges, including a re-badged Chevrolet Volt, while VW has expanded to 15. The GM subsidiary has gone from being a formidable competitor to an also-ran, at least in the eyes of Wolfsburg.

Having lost €572 million ($745 million) in the last financial year, as the market continues to struggle under the weight of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, Opel again is under intense pressure from GM to further cut costs, although current labor agreements forbid closing any plants until after 2014.

GM’s own forecast has Chevrolet accounting for 65% of the auto maker’s global sales by 2016, up from 61% in 2010, while Opel’s share will be flat at 13%.

By any measure, with German headquarters in crisis in Europe, this is hardly the ideal time for Opel to be launching the brand in Australia, especially without a single SUV or cross/utility vehicle.

Yet, Australians are quite familiar with Opel cars. From 1994 to 2005, the Corsa was badged the Holden Barina here. From 1996 until 2009, the Astra was the Holden Astra. Between 1997 and 2006 the Vectra wore the Holden Lion logo and for a short time was built in locally.

In every case, those European models were replaced by models sourced from GM’s South Korean subsidiary. GM Holden claimed the Opel brand was too expensive to be sold at a profit in Australia, even in 2005 when the Astra achieved 34,218 sales, second only to the Toyota Corolla among small cars.

Three years ago, when Detroit and Russelsheim, where Opel is headquartered, first proposed the German brand set up in Australia, GM Holden’s opposition was strong and outspoken.

At the time, those who believed Opel should become a global, rather than regional, brand were in the ascendancy and being pushed hard by the powerful German unions, planned to begin exports to China and return to India.

In a sop to the unions and to prove Opel wanted to break out of Germany and Europe, Australia was to be the trial market. GM Holden was forced to accede to Detroit and to provide as much backroom assistance as possible.

This explains why only 14 people are on the Opel payroll in Australia, all working out of GM Holden’s Fisherman’s Bend headquarters.

The coming of Opel means the Holden and Opel brands, both GM divisions, are fighting for the same buyers. It’s the identical challenge for Opel and Chevrolet, which share the same Korean sourced-models branded here as Holdens, in Europe.

Opel believes its European engineering provides a clear distinction, despite the Astra and Cruze sharing the same Delta 11 architecture, identical wheelbases and a common 1.4L drivetrain.

What’s more, the aging Opel Corsa is based on the jointly developed Fiat/Opel platform that underpins the Punto and is set to be replaced by a new, Korean-developed Gamma architecture in 2014.

The Opel Insignia, which rides on GM’s Epsilon 2 platform and is sold in the U.S. as the Buick Regal, gets a direct rival in the form of the Holden (Chevy) Malibu based on the same architecture next spring.

Trying to separate value Holdens from upscale Opels is not easy: The base 1.4L Cruze hatchback with manual transmission sells for A$22,740 ($23,820), while an Astra 5-door powered by the same turbo 1.4L is another A$1,250 ($1,309). The gap shrinks to A$950 ($995) with automatic gearboxes.

In reality, the price difference is even closer, unless buyers choose white; any other color adds A$695 ($727) to Opel’s list price. Local management swears the brand would not be in Australia unless it could turn a profit.

There are some obvious holes in Opel’s lineup. The Korean-engineered and built Mokka, a small soft-roader to rival the Skoda Yeti, is not confirmed, perhaps because GM Holden plans to import the badge-engineered Chevy Traxx in 2013.

The Adam, Opel’s all-new rival of the Fiat 500 and BMW’s Mini, is under consideration here, but this is one model that might be beaten by a too-high price. Nor are there any local plans for the current-generation Antara, Opel’s version of the Holden Captiva CUV.

 However, insiders claim the next-generation model (codenamed the C205), which is due in late 2013 or 2014, reveals far more visual differences. That probably indicates Australians will see both Holden- and Opel-badged variants.

Opel won’t confirm the OPC, for Opel Performance Centre, the German equivalent of Vauxhall’s VXR, for Australia, but we understand the GTC Astra is almost certain to be a starter next year. The hot coupe comes with a conventional 6-speed gearbox.

Development of a twin-clutch gearbox apparently has been delayed. What’s almost certain is the GTC soft-top convertible version (G3700), due to launch in March 2013 and expected here in early 2014, and possibly the Zafira compact MPV – both of which previously wore Holden badges.

A new Corsa (S4500) based on a Korean-developed architecture to be shared with the next Holden Barina, is due in 2014.