What does it mean to buy American?

My mom used to drive a 1994 Isuzu Trooper. One day the transmission blew up. I suppose it didn’t happen all of the sudden, but rather the condition got gradually worse over the course of a few months. Eventually when it got to the point of being undrivable we decided it was time for an overhaul.

After I pulled the transmission out it was interesting to see what it said on the transmission ID label. The transmission was actually made by General Motors and it turns out it was a 4L30-E. Not only did this Japanese car have a transmission made by an American car company but the transmission was made in a GM factory in France. You might say that this isn’t a really big deal because GM owns a large chunk of Isuzu however; the 4L30-E transmission was used in several BMW models as well. Welcome to the global economy.

So what does it mean to buy American these days when it comes to purchasing a car? Nothing is made exclusively in any one country anymore so it’s impossible to only buy American, or only buy Japanese, or only buy German. My mom’s Isuzu Trooper was actually built in Indiana; my Ford truck was built in Canada. Which one is more American? Maybe it depends on where all of the parts are made rather than where they are all put together.

Cars.com releases a list of cars each year that are considered their “Most American” list of cars and trucks. The factors that influence their findings are things such as where the cars are built, where the parts come from, and how much of an impact they have on local and national economies so things like sales numbers are important. Here is what they have found for 2011:

#10 GMC Acadia 
This car is built in Lansing Michigan, and the Americans working in that factory are certainly American.
#9 Toyota Tundra 
Built in Texas, this is the most American of all full-size pickup trucks with 80% domestic parts.
#8 Chevy Traverse 
Pretty much the same as the GMC Acadia, and also built in Lansing, but it is a better seller and therefore stimulates the economy a bit more.
#7 Jeep Wrangler
Built in Toledo, Ohio the Wrangler is the most American of all vehicles from the Chrysler Group.
#6 Toyota Sienna 
Built in Indiana with engines and transmissions made in Kentucky. An American minivan for American families
#5 Honda Odyssey 
Made in sweet home Alabama with 75% American parts, this is the most American of all minivans.
#4 Ford Explorer 
The new Explorer is the most American SUV that you can get.
#3 Chevrolet Malibu 
Built in the middle of the USA in Kansas City, Missouri from 75% domestic parts
#2 Honda Accord 
The second best selling sedan in the country is also the second most American. Made in Ohio from 80% US parts.
#1 Toyota Camry 
Made by Americans, for Americans from 80% domestic parts. This car is also the top selling sedan in the US and has been for a decade or so.

American or not the Camry is a sales juggernaut.

The above list changes from year to year and it even varies somewhat depending on the criteria that are used to make the final decision on just how American each car is. One can’t help but find it interesting that exactly half of these cars are “Japanese”. The fact of the matter is that nobody has moved more auto manufacturing to the U.S. than Honda and Toyota, and nobody has moved more manufacturing outside of the U.S. than the Big Three.

GM Ford and Chrysler have moved a tremendous amount of manufacturing to places like Mexico and Canada, and they are even in the process of building factories in China. You might say that they are doing this because it is cheaper for them to manufacture their products elsewhere and that is probably true. The other part of it is that they are becoming more streamlined globally and if they are to build cars that are sent all around the world it may be easier for them to do this from other countries.
Chrysler's most American model.

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and even some of the Europeans such as Volkswagen, and BMW have moved a tremendous amount of manufacturing to our shores. So why is it that this makes good business sense for them while it makes poor sense for the domestics to stick around? The biggest difference between a Honda or Toyota plant and a Ford or Dodge plant is unionization of the workers. None of the Japanese car assembly plants are unionized. This doesn't mean that the works are somehow oppressed without the unions. Many times the unions have tried to organize in these factories but they have been rejected by the workers every time.

This goes even farther with Honda and Toyota because many of their models that are sold here, were also designed here, for the purpose of selling here. Go anywhere else in the world and the Honda Accord is not the same car as it is in the U.S. Do you think that Toyota could sell a big truck like the Tundra anywhere else in the world? Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. based in Torrance, CA is practically an independent company from the mother company back in Japan. Does it mean anything to know that Toyota and Honda stocks are traded on the NYSE?

Buying this car makes a lot of Americans in Ohio happy.
But what about the bottom line? Isn’t the most important thing about where it is that the profits end up? That may be true to a certain extent, but isn't economic stimulation here in the U.S. really the most important thing. Thousands of Americans work for Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in factories and engineering centers around the country. What about their job security? Is it less important then the security of those that work in a Chrysler plant in Mexico, or should we just worry about the profits that go to the big boys in offices in Detroit, who frankly have not shown very good stewardship of the American icons of the automotive world? If you want to follow some of these returns, and where the profits go, just remember that Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep are owned by Fiat which is Italian. So if you buy a Dodge the profits ultimately go to Italy.

The bottom line is actually this: drive what you want to drive because you like it or you think it’s a good car. Flag waving and auto buying cannot go hand in hand. The global economy is far too complicated for that. Ford builds cars all over the world, and so does Honda. What is American and what isn’t doesn’t matter anymore because it can never really be determined how much your purchase benefits whom. No matter what you pick, unless it is some strange European car, chances are you are helping some American somewhere have a certain measure of job security. Just leave it at that and have fun with your new car.
Toyota Tundra. Designed in California, Built in Texas with parts from Indiana.

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