Detroit's Big Three carmakers are unofficially dubbing 2004 "the year of the new product push", adding more new cars and trucks to their model ranges than in any year in recent memory, Associated Press (AP) reported.

But the news agency noted that 2004 might also be called the year when Detroit's carmakers take aim at foreign companies that have been beating them on their own turf.

AP said that actually regaining market share lost to Japanese and other carmakers will be difficult for General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group though most analysts told the news agency the improving economy and tide of new products give them an opportunity to boost sales, and to reduce consumer incentives that have hurt profits so much in the past few years.

The consensus of six industry analysts and executives interviewed by The Associated Press is that US sales of new cars and trucks will rise about 2% to 3% in 2004, from already healthy levels in 2003.

Most said foreign companies such as Toyota and Nissan remain in a position to continue their expansion, aided by vehicles like Toyota's new hybrid Prius and Nissan's Quest minivan but, unlike the past few years, GM, Ford and Chrysler now appear better situated to take on their overseas rivals at home, the report added.

"I think there's a whole host of buyers in North America that have no problem buying a Big Three vehicle," said CSM Worldwide analyst Mike Wall told AP, adding: "They just need a compelling reason to do so."

That's where the barrage of new vehicles comes in, AP said, noting that JD Power and Associates expects major carmakers to introduce 31 new and 31 significantly redesigned vehicles in the US market in 2004, up from 27 new and 21 redesigns in 2003 and 30 new and 19 redesigns in 2002.

The bulk of new offerings will come from the Big Three which, JD Power analyst Jeff Schuster told Associated Press, stems partly from timing - many vehicles are at the end of their planned lifecycles - and partly from necessity.

AP said GM, which is trying to post a third straight year of US market-share growth in 2003, will lead the way with 28 new or redesigned models in 2004 - the additions range from the entry-level [Daewoo-built] Chevrolet Aveo to the upscale Cadillac STS, which replaces the Seville.

"The Big Three can't sit back and watch everyone else beat them to the market with product," Schuster, JD Power's director of North American forecasting, told AP, adding: "All three will be more competitive by the end of 2004 than they are right now. But that may not spell additional market share, because everyone else is more competitive as well."

Associated Press said that the two companies with the most on the line are Ford and Chrysler, both of which need several successful product launches to improve profits.

At Ford, AP noted, the focus is on cars and the firm has labelled 2004 "the year of the car" as it plans to launch the large Five-Hundred sedan, the GT supercar, the new Mustang and the Freestyle, a roomy car-based utility vehicle.

Chrysler's product plans are even more aggressive, though its circumstances are likely more critical, AP said, noting that the firm's US market share has fallen steadily and it's struggling to reach a break-even profit target in 2003. The root of the trouble, analysts told the news agency, is an aging vehicle portfolio, poor product planning and stiff competition from Asian and European brands.

AP said Chrysler will roll out nine new or redesigned vehicles in 2004, including two rear-wheel-drive cars, next-generation minivans and a revamped Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The news agency said the numbers show the Big Three certainly need a lift because, to the end of November, combined US sales for the Big Three were down 3% from the same period a year ago which is not encouraging, considering consumer incentives have been at record levels in 2003.

Meanwhile, AP noted, Asian and European brands each saw US sales rise 3.2% to the end of November - a trend few predict to end as foreign companies continue to add US manufacturing capacity and retail outlets.

"When they're moving into new segments, such as pickup trucks, it makes it tough for them not to gain market share," analyst Wall told AP which noted that Nissan's first full-size pickup, the Titan, which went on sale in the United States in December, is priced $US2,600 to $3,000 less than comparable models from GM, Ford and Dodge.

Associated Press added that, in a recent research report, Merrill Lynch cited the new pickup as a reason why Nissan likely is on the verge of another wave of increased sales and profits.

AP said that Big Three executives claim the keys to increasing profitability are lowering the cost of making vehicles and improving pricing by reducing consumer incentives, an industry trademark since soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks and noted that all are working on cost while pricing remains a question.

Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, told Associated Press he hopes the wave of new products will allow the carmaker to ease up on incentives in 2004.

"The question for us is going to be: As the economy continues to strengthen, how much relief do we get on pricing?" Ballew told AP, adding: "We don't think by itself it's going to give us complete relief because competition is so intense."

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