U.S. auto makers kicked off the North American International

Auto show Tuesday with predictions of higher sales, better market

share and new products aimed at beating back Japanese competition

that has plagued Detroit for more than a decade.

   Ford Motor Co. President Alexander Trotman said the U.S.

market is finally showing signs of recovery after two years of

weak sales.

   "If the bullishness that we see among our dealer body in the

last few weeks should continue for another month or two, it could

well be that (U.S. car and trucks sales) exceed 13.5 million

units," he said. 

   Auto analysts expect 1992 car and light truck sales to end up

around 12.8 million units, up from an eight-year low in 1991 of

12.3 million units. Full year sales figures are scheduled to be

released later today.

   Trotman said if sales really take off, Ford could move to

increase production capacity by building another plant or adding

more overtime to existing factories. He said Ford may boost

production capacity to 4.6 million units by 1996 from the current

3.7 million vehicles.

   Leaders of the nation's auto industry were to meet today with

President-elect Bill Clinton in Little Rock, Ark., to discuss the

economy, trade and industry regulations.

   Clinton's office said the president-elect will talk about how

his economic plan and the pending North American Free Trade

Agreement will affect the industry.

   Clinton also invited United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber

to participate.

   Ford, the nation's second-largest auto maker, has reason to be

optimistic this year. Its Taurus sedan is in a dead heat with

Honda Motor Co. Ltd's Accord for the title of America's

best-selling car and its market share numbers are up

substantially from last year.

   Trotman said Ford's share of the U.S. car market is likely to

end up around 21.7 percent in 1992, up 1.7 percentage points from

1991, and its share of the total U.S. vehicle market is up 4.5

percentage points in the last 10 years to 24.6 percent.

   Chrysler Vice President Marty Levine said Chrysler hopes to

increase its share of the truck market even further this year

with the introduction of a new full-sized pickup truck called the

Dodge T300.

   Chrysler is to begin building the truck in July. Levine said

it hopes to sell 250,000 trucks a year, nearly three times as

many Dodge Ram trucks as it now sells.

   Ford's upscale Lincoln Mercury division also hopes to woo some

luxury car buyers back into its showrooms with the new sporty

Mark VIII coupe.

   Ford Vice President Lee Miskowski said the company has already

received 15,000 orders for the $ 36,640 car, about half of what

Lincoln planned to sell in 1993.

   U.S. auto makers also are going on the offensive in

international markets.

   Ford said it expects to ship 60,000 cars and trucks to Europe,

Australia and the Far East in 1993, up from 50,000 in 1992.

   General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet division Tuesday unveiled a

"mystery" concept car, called the Impala SS, that could be on the

road in the next few years.

   Chevrolet officials declined to say if the sporty concept car,

which was derived from the full-size Caprice and fitted with a

powerful Corvette engine, would actually arrive in showrooms by

the mid-1990s, but it remains a possibility.

   "People want to know if we actually plan to produce and sell

it," Chevrolet General Manager James Perkins told reporters at

the Detroit auto show.

   "That wasn't the idea. All we were trying to do was tweak the

interest of the automotive aftermarket. But based on the reaction

we're getting, I guess we ought to at least consider its


   Chevrolet also introduced a new compact concept truck called

the Highlander. It features a sliding side panel to allow

passengers more room when they enter the vehicle.

   Former GM Chairman Robert Stempel, a veteran of scores of auto

shows in a 39-year career at the leading auto maker, couldn't

resist a look at one more Tuesday.

   Standing near the back of a crowd at a Chevrolet news

conference at the show, Stempel quietly greeted well-wishers and

journalists who approached him.

   "I'm really proud of what's happened here over five years, so

it's really good to come back and see the guys and see the cars,"

he said.

   He remains a technology adviser to Chief Executive Officer

John F. Smith Jr., the man tapped by GM directors to replace him

a week after his sudden resignation Oct. 25.

   Stempel, 59, subsequently had surgery to replace a damaged

heart valve. He appeared several pounds trimmer Tuesday.

   "I don't recommend it as a way to lose weight but it's not all

bad," Stempel said, laughing. "Time heals a lot of things . . .

no problems now."

GRAPHIC: Associated Press, Eddie de Santis and the Singing

Strings perform at a preview party at the International Auto Show

in Detroit.