Ford's Argentine operation is planning to double exports this year, as the country's slow recovery from recession keeps domestic sales down, Bloomberg News reported.

Once the maker of an outdated model based on the 1960s US Ford Falcon, Ford Argentina today has a modern line-up of European-designed passenger cars - Ka, Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo - and a blend of European and U.S. designed light commercials ranging from the little Fiesta-based Courier pickup through the Ranger to the F100 truck.

Ford Argentina exported 34,200 vehicles last year to Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Central America and aims to surpass 50,000 vehicles this year, Rodolfo Ceretti, company spokesman, told Bloomberg News. Ford's domestic sales fell about 21 percent last year to 46,098 vehicles.

The company expects Argentine auto sales to fall about 19 percent this year to 250,000 vehicles, and hopes that increased exports will keep production levels up. Carmakers in the country operated at as much as 50 percent below capacity last year as high interest rates and a recession cut demand for new vehicles.

"We reformulate our projections depending on how the economy is going and we don't see clear signs of recovery yet," Ceretti told Bloomberg News. "We are not expecting to maintain production levels based on the domestic market alone."

Argentina's auto sales fell 19.2 percent in 2000 from the prior year to 306,946 vehicles, according to the country's association of automakers. The decline was partly a result of increased taxes and the stagnant economy, which led Argentines to cut purchases of big-ticket items.

Carmakers have said taxes on cars, which amount to about 47 percent of the price, must be lowered to increase sales.

Still, Argentine car exports have been climbing. In 2000, shipments abroad rose 38 percent and may climb this year.

Ford hopes Argentina and Mexico will reach a trade accord next month, which would allow exports to Mexico to begin in July or August. The company exports the Escort, Ranger and Focus models.

Bloomberg News also said that, like Ford, DaimlerChrysler Argentina plans to target markets abroad. The company last week announced it would begin producing right-hand-drive Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans for export to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and some countries in Europe.

Bloomberg News said that Argentine auto production rose 9.6 percent in 2000 from a year ago, led by foreign demand, according to the government statistics department. That's less than the 2000 estimate by Argentina's auto association, which said production rose about 11.4 percent to 339,632 units.