Sport utility vehicles and pickups will maintain their growth in the American market as competition from Asia intensifies, motor industry executives told The New York Times (NYT) over the weekend as they gathered in San Francisco for an annual conference with car dealers.

Industry executives also defended their largest vehicles against a tide of recent questions raised by federal regulators and environmental advocates, the newspaper said.

The NYT said the controversy has not deterred competition in the lucrative market, noting that Hyundai Motor Company chief D. J. Kim said on Friday that the company would probably enter the full-size sport utility market by 2007 and is also considering building its first pickup around the same time, as well as a new minivan, while evaluating whether to start a luxury brand.

The new products would be part of Hyundai‘s goal of tripling American sales, to one million vehicles, by 2010, the NYT added.

The New York Times said the next US automotive battleground appears to be the pickup, following the recent launch of Nissan’s first full-size model, the Titan.

“It should be clear that the truck segments are now coming under attack,” Chrysler Group chief operating officer Wolfgang Bernhard said in a speech, according to the NYT. “Anyone who believes pickups won’t represent the next big product offensive of the imports is wrong,” he added, the paper said.

The New York Times said top General Motors and Ford executives defended the SUV, a cornerstone of their profitability, from recent campaigns against its effects on the nation’s oil consumption by a range of groups, from religious leaders to the columnist Arianna Huffington. Manufacturers and dealers told the newspaper they saw no move away from such vehicles by consumers.

“SUVs are under a lot of scrutiny these days, and yet the SUV buyer is a very loyal lot,” Ford chairman and chief executive William Clay Ford Jr. told the NYT. “We think the attacks are unfair, but we can’t change that.”

According to the New York Times, Ford, in speeches on Friday and Saturday, said environmental responsibility, a low priority in most buyer surveys, would become an important measuring stick.

The New York Times said General Motors head Rick Wagoner was optimistic, saying he expected an added 1.8 million vehicles in industry-wide sales in the United States by the end of the decade.

Last year, 16.8 million vehicles were sold, the NYT noted.