How "American" Is My American Car or Truck?

Updated on April 21, 2019
kevinthecarguy profile image

As a car salesman (of American cars & trucks) I know things most consumers don't. I hope to help the buyer by passing on some helpful tips.

Now, That is an American Car!  The Classic 1957 Chevrolet Belair.
Now, That is an American Car! The Classic 1957 Chevrolet Belair.

What Does it Mean to Say a Car is American?

What is an American car? I have always “bought American.” Times have changed. Now we have an international system of trade and manufacturing. It is hard to be sure exactly what it means to refer to an “American car.” Unless you are in the business, you most likely have no idea of how complex an issue it is.

Just to start, try to define an “American” car. It is not easy. Which is more American, a Chevrolet built in Mexico or a Toyota built in San Antonio? What about a BMW that is completely assembled in South Carolina? Is it a German car or American? It is made in good old South Carolina, but 65% of its parts are imported from the motherland – Germany. It is made by American men and women, but out of German parts.

To make things worse, 70% of the BMWs made in South Carolina are exported out of the United States. So, if you buy a BMW in Spain, that was built in South Carolina, from parts made in Germany, what do you have? Likely, we all would agree that it is not a Spanish car. But, is it American or German? What is the controlling factor? Is it the brand name’s country, the place where most of the parts are made, where the power train is made, or the place where it is finally assembled? It is not so easy to define an American car anymore.

Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated as you delve in to it a bit deeper. Certain vehicles have multiple assembly plants and multiple engine and transmission options. Particularly with pick-up trucks, there is a variety of available powertrains. The chances that the V-6 gas, V8 gas and diesel engines are made in the same plant or even the same country is slim.

In 1994 the United States Congress implemented legislation designed to provide some guidance on the country of origin of cars and their key parts. Called the American Automobile Labeling Act (“AALA”). It requires that certain information be made available to buyers of all new cars sold in America. What sparked this? Concern about claims of cars being “American made” that were clearly under a foreign car’s marque. It has now been more than 40 years since a Volkswagen Rabbit “hopped” off the assembly line in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. And so it began – a Pennsylvania Volkswagen. Can the manufacturer call it an American car? That was the driving factor behind the AALA.

All new cars have a sticker that lists facts to help you determine how “American” your American car really is. The car must display a sticker that shows, among other things, the final assembly point, the source of the engine and transmission, and which countries supplied 15 percent or more of the vehicle’s equipment. If you want to see all of the required information you can turn to nhtsa.gov for a detailed explanation.

So, now it is clear, right? Well, no. Because of strong lobbying, the AALA counts much of any Canadian content as American. The law states that “foreign content” means passenger motor vehicle equipment that is not of United States/Canadian origin. Yet, parts from anywhere else, like Mexico, are considered foreign. If the engine or transmission is made in Canada, though, it must be shown as such.

The Most American?

Since the information is out there, let’s look and see which cars are the most American. You might be surprised. There were some obvious ones, but a Honda and 2 Toyotas made the top ten of ‘most American.” Consumer Reports looked at the 2015 production vehicles and found the top ten “most American” cars assembled in the United States to be as follows:

Buick Enclave 75%

Cadillac CTS coupe 75%

Chevrolet Corvette 75%

Chevrolet Traverse 75%

GMC Acadia 75%

Honda Odyssey 75%

Toyota Camry 75%

Toyota Sienna 75%

Dodge Viper 71%

Jeep Cherokee 71%

According to Consumer reports, it goes 5 General Motors products, then Honda, two Toyotas, a Dodge and a Jeep. Not what most people expected. Not a single Ford product – even though Ford assembles more cars in the United States than any other manufacturer.

I looked at the 2017 reports and found that the Kia Optima had 83% American or Canadian content, was assembled in the United States and with the 2.4-liter drivetrain, the engine and transmission are both made in America. That is higher than all the cars and trucks that we would consider “traditionally American.”

Let’s look at some specific “foreign” cars and see which countries are doing final assembly on the cars and trucks sold here in America and who is supplying the parts. Note how it is not a brand by brand issue. Each brand has certain models that are assembled in the United States and have high American and Canadian content. Other models by the same manufacture are assembled elsewhere and have little or no North American content.



The Global Economy

In this era of a truly global economy, things like which cars are “American” and which are not, has become murky. In the past, certain American and foreign car manufacturers formed alliances and produced sister cars under different names. The Mazda Tribute was a sister car to the Ford Escape. The Pontiac Vibe shared more than just a passing resemblance to the Toyota Matrix. Those were well known examples of blurring the lines between American and foreign cars. Now, though, it is very different. Vehicles that are considered 100% American, like a Chevrolet pick-up, may be assembled outside the United States and have many non-American parts under the hood.

The bottom line - Does it make a difference? In many ways, I am not sure it does. Quality has never been higher than right now. Each year the quality keeps going up. Survey after survey keeps showing that the initial build quality, over-all reliability and longevity has never been higher. In fact, not only are new vehicles getting better – they are doing so at an unprecedented rate. Year over year gains in both satisfaction and reliability are higher than ever before.

A Strong Reason to Buy American

Patriotic Support for American Workers

If you are wanting to buy American for personal or patriotic reasons, that is a bit different. The truth is there are no “all-American” cars anymore. Cars with 70% to 80% American content are the exception nowadays. From what I understand, the best you can do is to look at the brands that are American owned and are assembled in the United States with motors and transmissions made in America. That seems to be the way to get the most benefit of your car buying dollars to stay here at home.

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