The execs at Chrysler Corp. like to think the company dances to the beat of a different drummer.

"When we see everybody marching along all in lockstep we start looking around to see if we can't break out of the ranks and kind of march somewhere else," says Chrysler's Tom Gale, who has been running the company's international sales for the past three years. "We don't want to be with everybody else."

But even a company that fashions itself as hip sometimes has to follow. Beginning in 1998, the No. 3 automaker will build Dakota pickups at a $300 million assembly plant in Brazil and join a growing list of leading car producers who have set up shop in South America's hottest market.

The plant will have the capacity to build about 40,000 Dodge Dakotas annually using parts imported from the U.S. along with local parts. The factory is the latest piece of Chrysler's new global puzzle.

But today, even after recent dedications of regional headquarters in Europe and Asia and announcement of its new plant in Brazil, Chrysler remains a small player in the international field. And to guys like Mr. Gale and Chrysler President Robert Lutz, that's OK. While other automakers are making what company officials say are large, questionable investments all over the world, Chrysler has been content to take its time and make what the top brass reasons are more pragmatic ones.

Internationally, Chrysler runs far behind Ford and GM. And despite stiff competition from Japanese and Korean automakers trying to gain a foothold in developing markets around the world, Chrysler executives remain upbeat about increasing the company's global sales figures beyond the 204,363 vehicles it sold outside North America last year. Sales through July of this year are already at 126,168 units, a 17% increase over year-ago.

"I think Chrysler's approach is a good strategy," says David J. Andrea, an investment analyst at Roney & Co. in Detroit. "Sometimes it is not all that bad to follow someone and let them make all the mistakes before moving in. If markets are growing, there should be enough business to go around."

In Vietnam, it was the possible lack of business that convinced Chrysler execs to shelve plans for vehicle production.

The story is much different for Chrysler in South America and in other parts of Asia.

Chrysler will open a new plant in Cordoba, Argentina, next year to build Grand Cherokees from complete knock-down kits and will spend an additional $65 million to add Cherokee production in 1998.

In countries such as India and China, the company has several concepts of what an "Asia" car should be, says Mr. Gale, but there are no final product development plans, as yet.

Also high on the list are Indonesia and Thailand, where there is room to expand the product lineup beyond Jeep Wrangler and Cherokee to minivans and Neons.

Chrysler's game plan may seem slow to some, but company executives don't feel pressured to play the "me-too" strategy. Instead, Chrysler officials say they will grow at their own pace and continue to do what they do best: redefine.

"We will not go after things just because everyone else is doing it," says Mr. Lutz. "We are just not going to go after bad business."