Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I witnessed “buy American” mentality every day of every week of every year. While my own family was not directly connected to the auto industry, we strongly felt that our livelihoods and those of our neighbors ultimately depended on the success of Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors. So ingrained in my family was this “buy American” mentality that my stepfather willingly bought a Chevy Citation, and my uncle actually purchased a Renault Alliance.
Ultimately, neither was happy about their choice, a sentiment shared by lots of people all around the country who, out of a patriotic sense of duty, bought these two steaming piles of junk and others like them. Given the devastation wreaked upon Detroit in recent decades, and the long struggle the city faces to recover, the corporate complacency, executive hubris, and engineering ineptitude that led to vehicles like the Citation and Alliance continues to have significant detrimental impact upon what once was a great American metropolis.
Meanwhile, during the 1970s and 1980s, Californians were discovering the joys of reliable, affordable, and fuel-efficient transportation solutions from Japan. What happened in California, a trend-setting state (“like, fer sher dude”), eventually happened everywhere else. And so, by 1990, when Chevy thought the godawful Lumina would be a good idea, Honda rolled out the spectacular fourth-generation Accord, and things would never be the same.
By then, Honda was building the Accord in Ohio. It was designing cars there, too – even engineering them. In fact, when a buddy of mine graduated from college in 1989, he headed straight to Marysville, bought himself a racy little Honda CRX Si, and started his long and successful engineering career.
Today, companies like Honda and Hyundai operate major design, engineering, testing, and production facilities across the U.S., employing thousands of Americans in the process and offering them a measure of economic security through steady income and paid benefits. Yet, to some people, the vehicles produced by these automakers are still “foreign.”
Now that we’re well into the 21st Century, my question is this: What constitutes “buying American,” and does it even matter anymore?
For example, Italy’s FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) now owns Chrysler, and the combined Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is headquartered in London, England. Therefore, is a Ram 3500 Laramie Longhorn, built in Saltillo, Mexico, an “American” truck? If it is, then is the California-designed, Michigan-engineered, and Texas-built Toyota Tundra an “American” truck? If not, why not?
Due to the globalization of the auto industry, my opinion is that a modern American car, truck, or SUV is one that is made in America regardless of what nameplate it wears.
To sort all of this out, the Kogod Made in America Auto Index can help. Created by the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C., this analysis of the automotive market takes into account a number of factors in order to determine what it means for a new vehicle to qualify as “made in America.” From the source of a vehicle’s parts and the location of the vehicle’s assembly to where the profits from the sale ultimately flow, this index attempts to take all considerations into account in order the identify the most “American” cars, trucks, and SUVs for sale in the U.S.
In 2014, two iconic models topped the list, the Ford F-Series and the Chevrolet Corvette, each with an index score of 87.5 out of 100. In fact, 21 different vehicles from Ford Motor Company and General Motors filled the top slots in the index, followed by several Fiat Chrysler Automobiles vehicles, including the Chrysler 200, Jeep Cherokee, and Jeep Wrangler.
With index scores of 78.5, several Honda and Toyota products came next, including the Texas-built Tundra, which, as it turns out, is the second most “American” full-size pickup truck you can buy. Best-sellers like the Honda Accord, Honda CR-V, and Toyota Camry all receive an index rating of 76 or higher, which means that, according to this index, these three popular “Japanese” models are not only more “American” than a Chevy Silverado or a Jeep Grand Cherokee, they measure up to the standard better than most of the vehicles you can buy today.
From my perspective, I want to buy a car that is literally made in America. Not in Canada (Dodge Charger). Not in Mexico (Ford Fusion). Not a model based on a car that was designed and engineered in Europe (Buick Regal). I don’t care where the profits ultimately flow, as long as I know that the purchase of my vehicle employed as many Americans as possible during its development and production phases.
Globalization makes this increasingly difficult, of course. The Ford Motor Company survives today, because former CEO Alan Mulally quickly globalized the organization and began developing vehicles to be sold all around the world rather than in specific regions. Such an approach ensures maximum profitability and allows Ford to assign creation of vehicles to regional employees to ensure that their primary customers will find them appealing, even irresistible. Thus, Americans develop vehicles like the F-Series truck, while Europeans are responsible for small cars like the Focus.
Regardless of the benefits and impacts of globalization, when the time comes to replace my own family’s current vehicles, each of which is a decade old and hails from Japan, I’m going to be referencing the Kogod Made in America Index at the start of my research phase. This approach doesn’t mean I will blindly select the highest-rated model in my chosen segment, but I will buy the most “American” vehicle that meets my other criteria for safety, reliability, practicality, available features, and aesthetics. And I’m not going to care much about what badge adorns its flanks.
Because mine is just one of several voices on AutoWeb’s team of contributing editors, I asked my compatriots to offer their opinions on the subject. What follows are their responses.
Kirk Bell: For my dad, if it wasn’t Pontiac, it was crap. Then in the 1970s and ’80s the domestic automakers went into the tank, and the Japanese redefined how to build a car. Unfortunately, for some U.S. automakers, a soiled brand image hurts them to this day. Cadillac, for instance, is making great cars, but sales don’t reflect that fact.
Personally, I like a good car no matter who makes it. I want the U.S. brands to do well, but I also want the foreign automakers to build good cars, too. Anyone who gets too jingoistic about any brand is probably an idiot, and the hate for “Government Motors” coming out of the recession was just as misguided.
Others on our team have spoken about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and percentage of U.S. parts content, so I’ll leave that to them. I would only say that buying American doesn’t necessarily mean buying American, and buying foreign often times also employs a lot of Americans.
Aaron Gold: For me, it (now) means assembled in the USA (not Mexico or Canada) by U.S. workers. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. U.S.-made content is mixed in with NAFTA content, and from what I understand, since most major sub-assemblies are built by suppliers, they can get all their sub-sub-assemblies from China, bolt ’em together in the U.S., ship it to the factory, and call it U.S.-made parts content.
Bob Gritzinger: I can tell you that, for the UAW (United Auto Workers), it means built in the U.S. or Canada, NAFTA notwithstanding. But, as Ron notes below, “Buy American” nowadays mostly shows itself in brand loyalty to Detroit Three trucks, and maybe among members of NASCAR nation. For most people, the country of origin matters not.
If you measure by North American content (by that I mean U.S. and Canada), the highest domestic-content car used to be a Lincoln Town Car, built in Canada. When you point out that a lot of Hondas are built in Ohio (and the 2016 NSX was engineered and will be built in Ohio), and a lot of VWs roll from Tennessee, the usual reaction is “follow the money” or “where does the profit go?”
So what does it mean to buy an American car these days? Depends on your definition – content, point of final assembly, company ownership. How you define it determines whether you’ve bought American. But by any definition, it’s pretty hard to find a fully American-designed and -built car today.
Michael Harley: In decades past, “buying American” meant purchasing a product that was designed, engineered, and built in the United States – the feel-good component was that your purchase was preserving American jobs. American automakers, such as Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, touted buying an “American automobile” as a sign of patriotism.
Today, there isn’t a single mass-produced vehicle from any major automaker that is 100-percent “made in America,” as all companies are outsourcing materials, components and labor on a global scale. Maintaining a competitive financial advantage – keeping costs down – requires these business practices.
As a result, “buying American” means almost nothing today, as there is no such thing as a purely American car. Even vehicles touted as “made in America” contain a large percentage of foreign content. Consumers who buy the fallacy that there still exists an “American car” are sadly misled.
Any new car purchase, from any automaker doing business in the United States, preserves American jobs, as nearly all of the world’s global automakers have established operations on domestic soil.
Ron Sessions: You can slice it any number of ways, from the national origin of each and every part, to the physical location of the major product planning, design, engineering and manufacturing hubs, to what soil the profits finally percolate into. But at the end of the day, aside from a few surviving World War II vets and the once mighty industrial cities in the Upper Midwest where some (but not even a majority) of U.S.-based company production continues, I don’t think it matters much anymore.
Sure, in some segments like full-size pickups, there remains tremendous loyalty to the Detroit Three. Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all.
You can cook stats any way you want, with some Japanese-branded high-volume cars and crossovers showing more U.S. content than U.S.-branded vehicles. There’s also a ton of Mexican parts in full-size trucks. Then, there’s NAFTA to argue about at your next UAW picnic, and the great assembly-plant escape that’s going on right now from Canada and Australia. Even the Europeans are getting hip to Mexican production. Apparently, cheap south-of-the-border labor hasn’t hurt VW’s reputation. We’re soon to get the first Chinese-made Volvos on these shores, too.
Brands and countries of manufacture are diverging, and quickly.