Ford plans to spend at least $US1 billion on boosting output in Mexico over the next three years but sees production in the country down 19% in 2003 amid weak US demand, company and government sources told Reuters on Monday.

Ford ships about 80% of its Mexican production to the United States [the Hermosillo plant builds the Focus ZX3, ZX5 and SVT models] and Mexico is the tenth-largest automaker worldwide and the top parts maker in Latin America, the news agency added.

Ford plans to start producing its [Mazda6 platform-based] Ford Futura mid-size sedan in 2005 at the Hermosillo plant, located in the northern state of Sonora, the company said in a release, according to Reuters.

"Total programme investment, including platform development, will be in the range of $1 billion," Ford said, according to the news agency which added that maximum capacity of the plant will be 300,000 vehicles with production levels based on demand.

"The Futura is the first (manifestation) of a vehicle platform that will form the basis for up to 10 new products and 800,000 units of volume across the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands in the next several years," the Ford statement added, according to Reuters.

The news agency said that, during the weekend, President Vicente Fox's office said Ford investment in the Hermosillo stamping and assembly plant was seen at $1.6 billion.

The Hermosillo project also includes the construction of an industrial park on site for as many as 19 local suppliers, Ford told Reuters.

Company sources in Detroit told Reuters the company expects to produce 150,000 vehicles at its Mexican plants this year compared to 185,874 units in 2002. The company has two vehicle assembly plants and one motor facility in the country.

Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico kicked off, Ford's Mexican production hadn't fallen below 213,000 vehicles, Reuters noted.

Eduardo Loustaunaud, a spokesman at the Ford de Mexico workers union, told Reuters that car assembling could fall further in 2004 due to poor demand in the sluggish US economy.

"We'll produce about 150,000 units (in 2003) and in 2004 a bit less," Loustaunaud told Reuters, adding: "It's the worst target we've had in the last years."

Reuters said Ford, which has operated in Mexico since 1925, produced 239,690 vehicles in the country in 2001 and 280,585 in 2000.

"The economic crisis has hit us hard," the union representative told the news agency.