Workers at the largest car makers in the United States are looking at bonus cheques the same or perhaps a little smaller this year than last, as the Detroit-based Big Three struggled for profitability in 2003, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Comerica Bank chief economist David Littmann in Detroit told Dow Jones Newswires that "although productivity gains were good, I think it will be more similar to the payout seen in 2003."

The news agency said that, by his estimates. that means profit-sharing cheques of anywhere from nothing to $US150 at Ford, although he says it is most likely at the high end of that estimate, and as much as $400 at Chrysler Group, while General Motors will pay out the most for the second straight year, which Littmann expects will be at least $500, but likely not as much as last year's $940.

GM has "staunched the erosion of market share and is doing better on sales and productivity gains and earnings," Littmann told Dow Jones which noted that Ford's bonus last year was $160 and Chrysler's $460.

The automakers are expected to give the exact amount of bonuses with the release of 2003 earnings, scheduled to begin this week, Dow Jones said.

Littmann told the news agency that the peak year for bonuses was the 2000 payout based on 1999's results - that year, Chrysler paid $8,100, Ford about $8,000 and GM, $1,775.

Littmann reportedly said car workers are likely to be conservative in their spending habits with many heading "straight to the bank" this bonus season, because of the uncertainty over the size of the cheques and concerns for the future.