DETROIT - Auto industry layoffs tripled last year to the highest levels since the early 1990s, the Detroit News said in a report published on Wednesday.

It noted that the job cuts, tracked by the Chicago recruiting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, illustrate the auto industry's growing pessimism about the coming year.

"Layoffs come when companies foresee a fairly prolonged period of soft demand - for six months to a year," said David Littmann, chief economist for Comerica Bank.

According to the Detroit News, the U.S. auto industry announced 85,231 job cuts in 2000 - up from 27,779 in 1999 - and the biggest cutbacks since Challenger began compiling the data in 1993. Only the retail sector laid off more employees last year.

The stream of job cuts has continued in 2001, the paper said. On Tuesday, transmission systems supplier BorgWarner Inc. said it would cut 200 workers and market research firm R.L. Polk and Co. sacked 141 staff.

Detroit's automakers have reduced first-quarter output by a collective 20 percent while car and truck stocks are at their highest levels in nearly a decade.

The soaring layoffs -- more than double industry's average of 34,271 job cuts per year since 1993 -- show auto companies are determined to stanch their financial losses.

"The industry has seized the opportunity to cut costs and gain efficiencies," Diane Swonk, chief economist at Bank One Corp., told the Detroit News.

She added that the cutbacks will be easier to absorb than in past downturns because of low unemployment rates and thousands of employees nearing retirement.