Trump turns his unpredictable ire towards German carmakers

Threatens 35-percent import tariff for BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and VW Group.

President-elect Donald Trump likes to be unpredictable. During the election, he used the phrase in reference to foreign policy and dealing with terrorism. But he's using the same tactic with the automotive industry, making broad statements that send manufacturers into emergency-response mode.

The latest salvo comes from an interview with Germany's Bild, where Trump threatened a 35-percent import tax on German manufacturers. ( Reuters covers the highlights in English here.) "If you want to build cars in the world, then I wish you all the best. You can build cars for the United States, but for every car that comes to the USA, you will pay 35 percent tax," Trump said.

Trump's comments seem to be directed at manufacturing in Mexico, although it's unclear if the comments refer to any import from a German automaker or just those from south of the border. BMW is building a $1-billion plant in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where it plans to assemble the 3 Series. Mercedes-Benz is joining up with Nissan to build a new facility in Aguascalientes near the Japanese company's existing factory. And Volkswagen recently expanded its massive footprint in Puebla to build the new Tiguan as well as a separate factory for the Audi Q5.

Reuters states that Trump thinks there's not enough reciprocity between Germany and the United States, as Germans don't buy Chevrolets at the rate American buy Mercedes-Benz Vehicles. At present, only the Corvette and Camaro are sold in Germany. The German subsidiary of Chevrolet parent General Motors, Opel, is the fifth-ranked automaker in the European Union, ahead of FCA but trailing Ford, VW, and both French auto companies.

In response to Trump, Germany's deputy chancellor (Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown above) and minister for the economy, Sigmar Gabriel, did not mince words. As reported by The Guardian, Gabriel said "The US car industry would have a bad awakening if all the supply parts that aren't being built in the US were to suddenly come with a 35% tariff. I believe it would make the US car industry weaker, worse and above all more expensive." Asked what it would take for Germans to buy more American vehicles, he said "Build better cars."

Gabiel also noted that BMW's largest plant is already in the US. The Spartanburg, SC plant exports about 65 percent of its 400,000-unit annual production to foreign markets and directly employs 8,000 workers according to BMW. The Mercedes-Benz factory in Tuscaloosa, AL builds more than 300,000 SUVs and exports $1 Billion in finished product. And Volkswagen's Chattanooga, TN plant which builds the Passat and upcoming Atlas SUV employs 3,500.

How the US manufacturing presence of German Automakers, or how supplier factories, figure into Trump's rhetoric remains to be seen. But with the presidential inauguration only days away, and Trump already moving on his campaign promise to overhaul Obamacare, it's likely we'll find out soon how this talk translates into actual policy.

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