It used to be pretty obvious which cars were built in the U.S. (Detroit's Big Three of Ford, GM and Chrysler) and which weren't (everything else). Then in the 1980’s the Japanese started building cars here, which made for some interesting arguments about what constituted an “American” car. But in today’s global economy, it's even harder to answer the question: Is your car made in America?
Many consumers looking to buy an American-built vehicle are having a hard time finding one that's assembled here with 100-percent American-built components. That’s because it's actually impossible, at least if you’re talking about buying a car from the major carmakers.
Made In U.S.A. (Partly)
For example, while Jeep's Patriot may be built in Belvedere, Ill., its transmissions originate in Mexico, Japan and Germany. Similarly Ford's Michigan-assembled Mustang may be as American as mom, Marines, and apple pie, but its transmissions come from China, France, the U.K., and Mexico. Chrysler's PT Cruiser isn’t even built in the U.S. – it’s assembled in Toluca, Mexico, though its transmission is U.S.-sourced. GM, meanwhile, builds its Chevy Camaro in Canada and its GMC Sierra pickup in Mexico.
Confusing? Yes. But that’s not the start of it. BMWs are now built in the U.S. and so are some Mercedes vehicles (in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Vance, Alabama, respectively). With Japanese carmakers having established multiple assembly plants across the U.S. and American car companies operating plants in Canada and Mexico lines are blurred further.
So what makes a car American? It's a rancorous debate that's sure to rumble on, but consumers can make up their own minds based on information that’s appeared on the labels of every new car for sale for years. This states where the vehicle was assembled and where the engine and transmission originated.
Mark Birmingham, an industry analyst at the Center for Automotive Research, said consumers who want to buy American primarily should look at where the vehicle is assembled, as often that indicates a large presence not just in manufacturing.
“There is something to be said for buying a Detroit ‘Big Three’ label,” he said, “in the sense that all of administrative, development and white-collar work is indirectly supported."
Who Builds What Where?
Ford’s Fusion, Fiesta, and Lincoln MKZ models are built in Mexico, while the Edge, Flex, Lincoln MKX, and Lincoln MKT are built in Canada. Other North American models are built in the U.S.
According to NHTSA documents provided to AOL Autos, Ford’s compact Focus is assembled in Wayne, Mich., with 90 percent of its parts sourced from the U.S. and Canada, but its transmission originates in Germany. While the Taurus is assembled in Chicago, Ill., about 65 percent of its parts are of U.S. origin. But its engine and transmission are both built in the U.S.
The F-Series pickup truck, that most iconic of domestic vehicles, is assembled in Kansas City, Missouri, and Dearborn, Michigan, but with just 55 percent of parts made in the U.S. or Canada. More than 15 percent of its parts come from Mexico, although all of its engines and both transmission systems are built in the U.S. Some transmissions for the Mustang (assembled in Flat Rock, Michigan) come from China.
GM vehicles assembled in Canada include Chevrolet's Camaro, Equinox and Impala and the GMC Terrain, while vehicles built in Mexico include Cadillac's SRX and Escalade EXT, Chevrolet's Aveo, HHR, Silverado, and GMC's Sierra. GM vehicles built in the U.S. include Buick's LaCrosse, Lucerne and Enclave, Cadillac's CTS, DTS and STS-V, Chevrolet's Cruze, Corvette, Malibu and Tahoe, and GMC's Yukon.
According to figures from IHS Global Insight, of the GM vehicles assembled domestically, several Corvette engines are built in Canada, with several transmission variants originating in Mexico. Its Chevrolet Silverado (assembled in Fort Wayne, Indiana) carries U.S.-built engines across all models, but several transmissions are built in Mexico. For the Cadillac CTS assembled in Lansing, Mich., several engines originate in Canada and Mexico, and the transmissions for various models in the CTS range come from Japan, France, Mexico, and the U.S. Some engines for GM's Chevrolet Cruze, assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, come from Szentgotthard, Hungary.
Chrysler says about 61 percent of the components it uses for its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep lines come from the U.S., while about 20 percent come from Mexico and Latin America, about 10 percent from Canada and just under 10 percent from the rest of the world. It maintains large production facilities across the U.S., but also builds its 300 and Dodge Challenger and Charger, in Canada, and the PT Cruiser in Mexico.
Of the Big Three's foreign competition, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia all proudly trumpet their domestic-built credentials. (Honda was the first Japanese carmaker to build a car plant in the U.S., in Marysville, Ohio., in 1979, and more Honda vehicles are now built in the U.S. than in Japan.) Toyota builds its Camry and Avalon models in Georgetown, Kentucky, its Sienna and Highlander in Princeton, Indiana, and has large plants in Huntsville, Alabama, and San Antonio, Texas. Hyundai builds the Sonata and Elantra in Montgomery, Alabama, and shares a plant in West Point, Georgia, with Kia, which recently celebrated the 100,000th Sorento rolling off that line.
Nissan and VW both have longstanding ties to Mexico, with plants in Aguascalientes and Cuernavaca (Nissan) and Puebla (VW). Nissan assembles its small cars like the Versa in Mexico and its larger truck and SUV lines in Smyrna, Georgia. VW imports all its vehicles into the U.S., though it will be opening a new plant in Tennessee.
Mercedes-Benz assembles its ML-, R- and G-Class vehicles in Vance, Alabama, with a U.S./Canadian parts content of 62 percent, but both its engines and transmissions are unsurprisingly sourced from Germany. BMW, meanwhile, assembles its X-series SUVs in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with mostly German componentry.
Electric carmaker Tesla's bodywork is completed by Lotus in England, and then shipped to California for assembly. It will jointly develop electric cars with Toyota at the NUMMI plant in Northern California.
It's a little surprising that some excellent automotive products are born of such a mix and muddle of production systems. But today's intertwined global economy – and car market – ensures that no matter where it comes from, today's cars mostly are built to high standards.
Otherwise, Americans wouldn't buy them.