For the first time in more than a decade, arguably the most quintessentially American vehicle produced and sold in the United States is an American model.
The Jeep Wrangler, to be precise, built in Toledo by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. That’s the Netherlands-incorporated automaker headquartered in London and led by an Italian schooled in Canada who works for controlling shareholders based in Italy.
The second “most American” vehicle, according to Cars.com’s 11th annual “American-Made Index,” is the Illinois-built Jeep Cherokee, followed by Ford Motor Co.’s Taurus sedan, assembled in Chicago. Of the top 10 most American, six are produced by Detroit’s traditional three automakers.
Honda Motor Co. produces the remaining four, the Acura RDX in Ohio and three more models in its Lincoln, Ala., plant. Only one of the 10 most American-made vehicles — Ford’s F-150 pickup — is produced in Michigan, whose assembly plants produce more cars, trucks and SUVs than any other state.
The bad news: over the past 11 years, the number of vehicles that would meet Cars.com’s original “American-made” criteria has declined to just three from 60 — an unambiguous signal of a globalized auto industry whose parts and finished vehicles flow effortlessly across borders.
The index, revised for this year, uses five elements to assemble its list: where a vehicle is assembled, the percentage of parts originating from the United States or Canada, where the engine is built, where the transmission is built, and U.S. plant employment.
Touting “Made in America” may be fashionable in President Donald Trump’s Washington; it may be politically correct among both domestic and foreign-owned automakers selling vehicles to U.S. consumers; it may fuel sentiment to renegotiate the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
But it’s easier said than done, now that the global genie is out of the proverbial bottle. Parts and vehicle assembly are located where a) customers are located and b) profit margins are greater because c) revenue per unit can offset labor costs. The lower the vehicle price, the more likely it is to be built outside the United States — especially for Detroit’s automakers.
Just ask Ford, whose three entries in the top 10 (Taurus, F-150 and Expedition SUV) are among the most expensive in its Blue Oval lineup. The automaker upended the industry’s “build where you sell” mantra with its decision last week to assemble the next-generation Focus compact in China for sale to American consumers.
Or ask GM, whose Buick Envision SUV (dubbed the “Invasion” by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams) comes from China. Or FCA, whose new duo from Alfa Romeo now in U.S. showrooms comes from its plant in Cassino, Italy.
Or Toyota Motor Corp., whose C-HR compact SUV for sale in the United States hails from Turkey. Or the UAW, whose members assemble less than half the vehicles sold in the United States — a precipitous decline from 30 years ago when the likes of Toyota and Honda planted production facilities in Middle America.
Jeep, forged by Detroit in the depths of World War II, is a different story. In analyzing 120 different models, Cars.com found that parts in 74 percent of the Wrangler, 75 percent of the Wrangler Unlimited and 70 percent of the Cherokee are American-made.
The survey is just the latest in a growing string of reports and PR campaigns aimed at burnishing the reputations of automakers. American University’s Kogod School of Business released its “Made in America Auto Index 2017”; Global Automakers, representing foreign-owned automakers operating in the United States, last month released a glossy, 30-page report titled “Here for America.”
The message: that foreign automakers operating in the United States are investing here. That they’re employing Americans and accounting for all the new plant construction as their Detroit rivals tightly manage production capacity to avoid building all-new facilities.
The timing is no accident. It’s politically astute for automakers to highlight jobs-creating investment in the United States. For the first time in who knows when, the guy in the Oval Office is demonstrating a keen interest in manufacturing jobs in the industrial heartland — the patch whose voters helped deliver him to the White House.
That’s potentially fraught for the autos, whose CEOs are well aware that their loyalties rest first with the shareholders who finance their business. But it’s also an asset for the industry, absent the risk of systemic collapse in 2008, to have the ear of the president of the United States.
Being American-made nowadays doesn’t hurt.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN.