DETROIT, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The hard-pressed U.S car industry slipped into a familiar gear on Sunday, cranking out the hoopla and the hyperbole to launch new products at pre-Detroit car show shindigs.

DaimlerChrysler AG's struggling Chrysler unit drove a new Jeep sport utility vehicle - Liberty - onto the worldwide automotive stage, both literally and figuratively, at the start of press previews for the annual car show.

Ford unveiled a new 3.9 litre V8 coupe concept car - the 49 - with the help of 50 gospel singers, a speech from company chief executive office Jacques Nasser, and thousands of Ford employees bussed in to cheer at the appropriate moments.

Not to be outdone, General Motors shook the dust covers off five concept vehicles. These included the Buick Bengal roadster and the Cadillac Vizon.

None of this razzmatazz can hide the fact that the automotive industry in the United States is in big trouble.

U.S. sales of cars and light vehicles were a record of about 17.4 million in 2000, up from the previous record of 16.9 million in 1999. But sales in the United States started to show alarming weakness in 2000's fourth quarter. Analysts are now scrambling to slash their forecasts for 2001 and beyond.

Britain's automotive intelligence provider Autopolis, in a report published last week, said annual U.S. car and light vehicle sales could dive by up to 20 percent, or 3.5 million vehicles, over the next three years.

And the record sales pace in the 1990s has hidden a dangerous development for domestic U.S. car and light truck makers.

German luxury car maker BMW and mass manufacturer Volkswagen AG have scored big gains in sales


The big three of GM, Ford and Chrysler lost U.S. market share in 2000, but foreign car makers like German luxury car maker BMW and mass manufacturer Volkswagen AG have scored big gains in sales.

Asian makers like Korea's Hyundai, Daewoo, and Japan's Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Honda and Toyota all performed in a different league to domestic producers.

According to research firm Autodata Corp, the big three's share of the U.S. auto market slipped to 65.6 percent in 2000 from 68.5 percent the previous year. Not only are the foreign invaders taking an increasing share of markets where they have always been strong - small cars, luxury and near luxury sectors - but now they are invading sectors like sport utility vehicles, multipurpose vehicles and pickup trucks.

The U.S manufacturers have traditionally made fat profits from these vehicles and this trend has set off alarm bells in the industry.


The Detroit News published a special supplement on Sunday with the headline "Under Siege," arguing that the American car industry is under assault from Asian and European car makers, and there is an increasing risk of more plant closures and layoffs.

GM announced plans Thursday to idle eight plants in North America for next week and additional plants through the rest of January. The Chrysler unit is also contemplating white-collar layoffs. It has already curtailed output at its North American plants to rein in bloated vehicle inventories. Ford and GM have slashed vehicle production levels for the first quarter and officials with both automakers said they expected to cut their production forecasts further.

Chrysler hopes that its new Liberty can help reverse this trend and boost Jeep sales worldwide. More importantly, it should help Chrysler, which expects to lose about $US1.25 billion in 2000's fourth quarter, regain its financial footing.

"If there's one message I want to convey, it is this, exciting breakthrough products made this company and those kind of products will make our company stand tall again," Chrysler's new chief executive Dieter Zetsche told hundreds of reporters.

"This new Jeep Liberty is evidence of exactly what I'm talking about," he added. Chrysler officials said they expect to sell 215,000 of the new SUV, which it spent $1.7 billion developing, in 2002, its first full year. It goes on sale this summer and will be built in Toledo, Ohio.

J.D. Power and Associates analyst Thad Malesh thinks Liberty will do well, competing against such SUVs as Ford's Escape and Toyota's RAV4, more car-like SUVs that are smaller than the popular mid-sized models like the top-selling Ford Explorer.

Liberty ostensibly replaces the aging Jeep Cherokee, which will be phased out by the middle of the year, much earlier than Chrysler had said earlier. The automaker touted its four-Jeep line-up when it announced the Liberty name in November, and had previously said Cherokee could be built until the end of 2002.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is open to the public January 13-21.