The U.S. Big Three are headed down different paths, keeping an eye to a common goal: making money overseas.

Chrysler Corp. is doing it with exports, while Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are putting up new plants and consolidating their global engineering resources for cost-effective assaults on emerging markets.

But the road is bumpy, and automakers will have to steer around several obstacles if targets are to be met. Among them:

n Market instability.

The plunge in key economies, led by Southeast Asia, is occurring just as Ford is getting ready to launch light-truck production in Thailand and GM is setting steel for a car plant there. Both hope to gain 10% of the Asia/Pacific market by 2005 or so, and new capacity will be critical.

GM is "very weak and under represented in Asia," says Louis R. Hughes, GM president-International Operations. "That's why we are opening manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and Indonesia. That's why we are building plants in Thailand. The best way to improve profitability is to build where we sell, to create an Asian manufacturing source."

Ford and GM say the Thai currency devaluation shouldn't be a stumbling block. For Ford, the weakened baht will make it more profitable to export products from its Thailand operation, set for Job 1 in mid-1998, giving it a hedge until the local market - which plunged 73% in October - rebounds.

"When a currency devalues it has a short-term negative effect, but it has a longer-term positive effect," says Mr. Hughes, whose company has temporarily halted construction of an Opel Astra plant that had been set to open in Rayong, Thailand, in 1999. "We don't really see it that negatively. The economies were over-stimulated and now it will go into this adjustment process that could very well be painful for several years.

"(But) it takes several years to build a plant," he adds. "By the time the economy (in Thailand) starts to recover, we should be in good shape."

Despite recent events, both GM and Ford are expected to proceed with Asian market expansion plans. "There's really nothing going on in the ASEAN (Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations) area that would cause us to change our plans," says Ford Vice Chairman W. Wayne Booker, who adds that a deal for vehicle assembly in the Philippines could come in first-quarter 1998.

The region "certainly is a place in the world that has a lot of things going for it," says Francois J. Castaing, executive vice president-International Operations for Chrysler, which recently opened a new Asia headquarters in Singapore.

The automaker already has plants in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and also could add similar operations in the Philippines.

Automakers are equally undeterred in South America, where the domino effect of Southeast Asia's economic slump also is being felt. Sales in Brazil have plunged 30%, and automakers, riding high just 60 days ago, have been closing plants to control rising stocks.

"There may be some hiccups along the way, but the fundamentals are there to be a lasting expansion. There are a lot of things right in South America," notes Mr. Castaing. Chrysler launched Jeep assembly in Cordoba, Argentina, earlier this year, and its Dakota truck plant is expected to be up and running in Curitiba, Brazil, by mid-1998. An engine plant joint venture with BMW AG in Campo Largo, Brazil, should begin shipping 4-cyl. powerplants in 1999.

n Political roadblocks.

International politics can be vexing, Big Three executives admit. Chrysler, for instance, is worried about the day certain Eastern European countries - Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, among leading contenders - work their way into the European Community. One proposal calls for tariffs to remain in place on imported automobiles - except those from Western Europe - for several years after admission to the EC.

"While they are trying to merge with the EC, they will slowly but surely put us out of business, while giving time to the Europeans to set up their businesses," says Mr. Castaing.

In China, what could become one of the world's biggest car markets over time, automakers are being held at bay by the central government, which continues to call the shots on who can build what, when and with whom. GM, which has a passenger car project under way in Shanghai, felt the government's sting last month when it lost out to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. on a car-building program in Guangzhou. Ford, which launched Transit truck assembly in Nanchang in early December, so far has been denied a car-building deal. And Chrysler still faces serious productivity issues at its Jeep-building joint venture in Beijing.

"Right now, the automotive policy is so restrictive, as far as what you can do and how you should be doing it, that I believe it is very difficult for a U.S.-based company traded on Wall Street to present a deal to its shareholders and say, 'This is a good deal,'" Mr. Castaing says. "In our plant in China, we have something like 8,000 people producing something like 80,000 vehicles a year. When in fact, in a modern operation, you need about 1,500 to do that volume."

n Overcapacity.

One study contends the industry already has the necessary capacity to meet projected 2005 sales. That competitive pressure is showing up in developed markets, such as Europe, where several manufacturers, including Ford and GM, have announced plant closings or staffing cutbacks. But it also has scared a few from putting up investments in emerging markets. Merlis Automotive International predicts capacity utilization in several key countries will fall between now and 2000 to just 67% in China, 69% in India, 76% in Korea and 73% in other Asia/Pacific markets.

Still, Chrysler's Mr. Castaing dismisses all the talk of global overcapacity with a wave of the hand. "There's a lot of people in Asia that are faster and faster getting in position to buy cars," he says. "So I can make the case that overcapacity is not something bad when you see the customers coming."

But Chrysler was concerned enough to abandon plans to set up assembly in Vietnam, where more than a dozen automakers may end up vying for an annual market of 30,000 vehicles. Ford jumped into that void, last month opening a knocked-down plant that ultimately could be capable of producing 25,000 units annually. "Chrysler was looking at a major assembly plant," Mr. Booker explains. "What we built there is a very reasonable assembly plant that can be expanded, but right now doesn't have a huge capacity. So we don't have to sell a huge number of vehicles in Vietnam to make money."

Like Mr. Castaing, Mr. Hughes also downplays chances of an industry shakeout. "I think all of our dear friends will continue to be there," he says.

n Internal breakdowns.

Conflict is bound to arise as companies reorganize into global entities and stretch staffing resources thin in order to penetrate new markets. That may have been the case at GM, where a rift reportedly developed between GM's top brass and engineers at Germany-based Adam Opel AG. Most of GM's global programs emanate from Opel, which specializes in the type of small cars that fit best with emerging markets. And Opel insiders have accused GM of taking its eye off the ball at home, while pursuing expansion elsewhere.

But Mr. Hughes contends the controversy has been overblown. The company's globalization strategy recently was presented to 1,600 Opel managers and, in electronic polling, 88% said they agreed with key proposals, Mr. Hughes says. "For us, (the controversy) is not a subject," he says. "It is dead. We have complete consensus from the company about the direction of our strategy."

n Absence of road signs.

In many emerging markets, it's a Wild West atmosphere, where rules are lacking or easily broken. Mr. Castaing says Chrysler has put Russia way down its priority list, in part because it is unclear what the tariff/local content laws are. "Recently, some Koreans have found ways to call some operations with just minimal assembly, CKD (complete-knocked-down)," Mr. Castaing says. "They disassemble cars at the border, then reassemble them just to get around the taxes. And I'm sure the Russian government will crack down on that eventually. But the fact that some companies can do that right now is a sign that the country is not ready to deal with CKD properly. A rule has to be established one way or the other."

Adds Mr. Booker, whose company is looking to establish a semi-knocked-down operation in Russia, "The tax code under study is a key factor in whether or not we can be successful. So that has to be (finalized). It's affecting our timing and where we make the investment."

Although the three automakers have somewhat different overseas strategies, they have a common mantra: profitability. Offshore ventures must be focused on making money, executives say.

Critics charge Chrysler is far too timid overseas. But Mr. Castaing contends the company's toe-in-the-water global game plan is a sound one: expansion through exports first, knocked-down assembly where required, and full-scale manufacturing only when existing capacity is too constrained to meet demand.

"What counts at the end of the day is how much cash international operations bring back to the company," Mr. Castaing says.As a result, Chrysler has sc aled back its ambitions, focusing on the world's top 30 markets, where it says it does about 96% of its overseas business. It has taken greater control over its own marketing, buying out distributors in France, Italy and Austria this year, with plans to do the same in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium by month's end. It made a similar move in Japan, where it has ended a Jeep sales arrangement with Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

"We've put all our efforts in building a better distribution network, becoming better marketers and servicing our existing customers better," says Mr. Castaing, who predicts international sales will total about 240,000 units this year.

Ford, which hasn't been shying away from new investments, is hedging its bets a bit. Its setup in Thailand - seen as a template for emerging-market plants - allows for quick, low-cost expansion as consumer demand grows. Mr. Booker says Ford's parts operations in China already are in the black. "We'll make money on (truck plants in Thailand and China) in the same period we do in other markets," he says. "We're not making any investments where we have to wait 10 years to make a profit."

All three automakers have under-$10,000 emerging-market cars on the drawing boards, but whether they get built depends on how well they fit into the general game plan.

Mr. Booker echoes his rivals when he says: "There's no reason to go into it just for volume, if you can't make a profit."