It’s time to get realistic. Some plants are going to have to be closed, not for a week or a few weeks; those are just furloughs. Some plants are going to have to be closed permanently. Torn down. Turned into shopping centers.

GM, Ford and Chrysler are going to have to reduce capacity. They have lost market share and sales are nudging down, the double whammy. They aren’t going to recover that market share, not in the short-term, not in the next 5 to 10 years.

They will keep converting plants from cars to trucks, but that’s not enough. Plants and jobs will have to go. Start with market share: In August General Motors had only a shade over 25% of the car (not truck) sales, excluding foreign-built Saab. I doubt they have ever been so low in modern history without a strike.

Now you know why GM wanted Bob Lutz, recently named VP of product development. Ford was just as bad, only 14.7% of the car market without Volvo and Jaguar. The Chrysler line got 5%, which is in the endangered-species red zone.

The July figures were lower than the Detroit companies were running this year, but I believe they are about where they will be over the next 12 months.

That’s because they have next to nothing new on the car side while the Germans and Japanese are throwing good stuff out there this fall. And the iron rule in the car business is "Best Car Wins." The Germans, Japanese and Koreans have them; they’ll win.

In the big family-car market, Toyota has as new Camry, Nissan has a new Altima, Hyundai has a new Sonata. At the low end there will be a new Toyota Corolla in spring. In the middle, Audi has a new A4, Mercedes has the new C240 coupe, Lexus has the new ES300. The new or improved foreign nameplates could fill the column. Against the onslaught, Ford has a limited-volume new Thunderbird (assuming they ever get it out), and Cadillac has the CTS nee Catera.

Detroit has a flock of new trucks. The Dodge Ram pickup from Chrysler, the Blackwood from Ford and a regiment from GM: the Saturn Vue small sport/utility and the Pontiac Vibe, which will be pretty good because Toyota is building it; the Escalade EXT (the Cadillac half pickup) and four-wheel steering at GMC. The foreigners have a few new trucks, too: a minivan from Korean Kia; a new CRV small SUV from Honda, and the Toyota Matrix, the brother of the Pontiac Vibe. Plus two new truck plants going up, Honda in Alabama and Nissan in Mississippi.

Some simple numbers: Guestimate a 16 million year in 2002 with 8 million cars. At 25% market share GM has 2 million cars, Ford, at 15% has 1.2 million. Chrysler has maybe half a million if it can climb over 6% of the market.

Detroit usually cuts production by shutting plants a week at a time. That’s because a permanent shutdown is terribly expensive since all the workers get paid forever.

But the time comes when you have to face facts: GM isn’t going to capture 35% of the market again, not in my lifetime, anyway. It will be years before Lutz-invigorated GM cars are on the field. Chrysler’s car business has a survival problem, and Ford, well, there just isn’t much there: The Contour/Mystique killed, the Taurus and Crown Vic outdated, the Focus losing steam, Mustang still great but old. And Mercury? Who knows for how long?

Show cars, or small-volume "halo’ cars such as the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevy SSR or the Cadillac 2-seater (at $80,000) don’t make up for volume products. And halo cars are supposed to bring a shine to something under the halo. There’s nothing under Detroit’s halos.

Sure, there are plans. There always are plans for the future, 2003, 2004 and 2005. That’s a long time off. I’ve seen photos of some of the plans for future cars. They would be good if they were on the market today; I’m not sure how advanced they’ll be when they come out in a couple of years.

I’m fairly certain the GM plant in Quebec will shut, and Ford will be shifting the Chicago Taurus plants to SUVs eventually. But this won’t be enough. There’ll be others.

The foreigners (and most of those cars are built in America, remember) have too much of an edge in cars.

In engines: 5 years, maybe 10. In exterior design: at least two cycles. In interior design: two or more cycles.

The domestic industry will be playing catch-up for a good while. Best car wins.

They won. o