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The still-struggling Chrysler Group eliminated about 5,000 jobs last year, above and beyond the 30,000 it cut in the previous two years, Chrysler officials said Wednesday night.

And unless the company's new Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles become more popular this year, the cutbacks will likely continue.

Chrysler Group Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche and Manfred Gentz, DaimlerChrysler AG's chief financial officer, updated Wall Street analysts in a presentation at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, held in conjunction with the North American International Auto Show.

During the event, Zetsche said 4,000 jobs had been cut through November, and a spokesman said that number will likely rise by another 1,000 workers when the numbers are tallied for December.

Not that the automaker handed out hundreds of pink slips last year. But as hourly and salaried employees retired, few were replaced, leaving more work for those who remain.

The announcement makes it all the more clear that higher-paying jobsand other fruits of economic recovery are not likely to come from Michigan's biggest companies. Ford Motor Co. plans to close plants. General Motors Corp. is continuing to replace only a fraction of the white-collar workers who leave.

Despite the steeper-than-expected job cuts at the Chrysler Group, Zetsche told the Free Press earlier this week that Chrysler will see a "slight further reduction" in salaried ranks as people leave the company.

One analyst asked Zetsche when the company might stop cutting employees. Zetsche said that would depend on how many cars and trucks the company sells this year.

"I cannot give you a precise and final answer," he said. With 25 new products coming to market in the next three years, including nine this year, Zetsche noted, "we are planning for volume growth and share growth."

The original three-year turnaround plan that Zetsche announced in 2001 called for eliminating 26,000 jobs -- one-fifth of all hourly and salaried positions. But last year, Zetsche reported that the company had cut 30,000 jobs through 2002. When job cuts through 2003 are included, the company will have eliminated 35,000 jobs -- 9,000 more than originally planned.

A year ago, Zetsche won praise from investors for his deeper-than-expected job cuts. But then in the second quarter of the year, Chrysler reported a stunning $1.1-billion operating loss as it struggled to cope with soaring incentives in the face of stiffer-than-expected competition.

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