DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co. brass say they’re braced for the coming year, predicting U.S. light-vehicle sales in 2008 will fall below 16 million units.

In the next three to six months, light-vehicle sales will run at an annual rate of 15.2 million to 15.5 million units, Mark Fields, president-The Americas, tells journalists at North American International Auto Show preview here.

Despite the gloomy forecast, Fields says Ford is prepared to weather the storm.

“It’s a concern for us, but we just have to make sure that every month we’re looking at the metrics and adjusting the business accordingly,” he says. “I think we’re right-sized. But as the externals change, we’ll take appropriate action.”

Ford closely is monitoring the nation’s economic conditions, including income and unemployment levels and consumer confidence. Monitoring the situation is somewhat tricky, Fields admits. “Sometimes there’s conflicting data.

“We’re going to take this month to month, manage the business appropriately and not get too punch drunk hoping for hope,” Fields says.

Meanwhile, he says Ford supports a House bill that would require a fleet-wide corporate average fuel economy of 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020.

The auto maker has strategies in place to meet the more stringent fuel- economy guidelines, including increasing lighter-weight materials in its vehicles; new powertrain technology; use of alternative fuels; and more diesel applications in its fullsize pickup and SUV lines.

“We’re up for (new CAFE standards),” Fields says. “It bends us, but doesn’t break us.”

bpope@wardsauto.com