General Motors Corp Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said on Thursday the No. 1 U.S. automaker expects overall 2008 U.S. auto sales to be about the same as the depressed levels of 2007, even as global sales hit a new high.

There are some obvious reasons for concern, but on balance I suspect '08 will be similar to '07 in total, although likely weaker in the first half and stronger in the second, Wagoner said in response to a question on his outlook for U.S. vehicle sales.

He added: In the U.S., we expect (overall sales in the) low 16 millions, but some risk given the economic background.

Wagoner spoke to reporters in an online chat session that kicked off a series of events marking GM's 100th anniversary. Major automakers, including GM, will release sales results for December and 2007 later Thursday.

Wagoner's outlook for U.S. auto sales was slightly more optimistic than many analyst views and corresponded with a drop in GM's share price to a 19-month low.

Wagoner said GM projected that about 80 percent of the industry's sales growth over the next five years would come from emerging markets. Global sales in 2008 were on track to hit a record of between 74 million and 75 million vehicles in 2008, he said.

We see continued strong growth in major emerging markets like China, India, Russia, and throughout South America, he said.

Wagoner said it was possible that tougher U.S. fuel economy standards could force automakers to narrow their product offerings, stepping back from the larger trucks and SUVs a sector that Detroit-based automakers has dominated.

A recently enacted change in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards requires automakers to hit a fleetwide fuel efficiency benchmark of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

The rules will be tough for everyone in the industry, Wagoner said. We're working this issue very aggressively.

But it's certainly possible that the new CAFE regulations could limit the range of vehicles offered in the marketplace over time, he added.

Most analysts expect that U.S. vehicle sales ended 2007 on a weak note. Many see overall industrywide sales near 16.1 million for 2007, the lowest level since 1998.

The 2008 sales outlook is seen hinging in part on whether the housing crisis runs longer and cuts deeper into consumer spending and pushes the U.S. economy into recession.

Many analysts have said 2008 U.S. auto sales could slump to near 15.5 million vehicles on an industrywide basis.

Shares of GM fell 4.2 percent, or $1.01, to $23.40 in mid-day trading on the New York Stock Exchange.