Howes: Who builds vehicle doesn’t guarantee Made-in-America cred
When the United Auto Workers’ national contract talks with Detroit’s automakers kick off next month, Job One will be securing investment for the next four years to build American cars, trucks and SUVs in American plants.
Only problem is the dirty little secret that really isn’t so secret amid swirling trade tensions fueled by President Donald Trump's itchy Twitter finger: where a vehicle is built, and by whom, doesn’t necessarily guarantee its Made-in-America cred.
Not when General Motors Co. is importing Buicks from China, Germany and South Korea, Ford Motor Co. is building midsize and compact cars in Mexico for U.S. showrooms, and Japan's Honda Motor Co. is producing more models with higher U.S. and Canadian content than the Detroit Three.
Cars.com’s 2019 “American-Made Index” proves the point, and it says the most-American vehicle rolling off the assembly line today is the Jeep Cherokee from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, headquartered in London and incorporated in the Netherlands. And five of the next six most-American vehicles are models produced by Honda in non-union plants in Ohio and Alabama.
The least-American vehicle assembled in America? The Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric car built by UAW members in the GM’s Orion Assembly Plant north of Detroit. Just 18% of the vehicle with a South Korean powertrain originates in the United States and Canada, Cars.com says, a reminder that facts can be stubborn things.
Revised two years ago, the American-Made Index reviews five factors for each of the 118 models included in the survey: location of final assembly, the origin of parts reported under the American Automobile Labeling Act, the origin country for engines, the origin country for transmissions, and the number of Americans the parent company employs in manufacturing operations.
Excluded from the index are fleet-only cars, models selling fewer than 2,500 copies in the first quarter of the year, heavy-duty vehicles and models built exclusively outside the United States. Gas-electric hybrid versions of existing models are considered separately, and models whose production is split between the United States and a foreign country are accorded a lower score.
"Scores of other models are built entirely abroad, including some from brands steeped in Americana," Cars.com says. "Ford builds the Fusion sedan and Fiesta subcompact in Mexico, while the Jeep Renegade SUV hails from Italy. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LD and GMC Sierra 1500 Limited, both carryover models from the prior generations, come from Canada.
"The vast majority of cars sold in the U.S. from Toyota’s Lexus division and Nissan’s Infiniti division are built overseas. Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Porsche build zero cars in America."
In theory, Trump's continual threat to levy tariffs on vehicles imported principally from China and the European Union is intended to change business decision-making, to force the likes of Audi and Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover, to produce vehicles in new U.S. plants for American customers.
More than a year of presidential browbeating has yielded mixed results. The foreign and domestic content of vehicles assembled in the United States has not dramatically changed in the Trump era, Cars.com's survey found, reflecting the long lead times of sourcing decisions and the industry's globally integrated supply chains.
Automakers are not stuck in neutral, however. Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. are partnering on a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in Alabama, and FCA is preparing to build a second Jeep plant in Detroit — the first such project in the Motor City in nearly 30 years.
Credit the president? Meh. Japanese auto executives long have proven to be astute analysts of shifting political sentiment in the United States, a major reason Toyota and Honda over the past 30 years built such sprawling manufacturing and engineering footprints in the industrial Midwest and the South. The joint venture with Mazda represents more a continuation of the trend than an answer to presidential pique.
FCA's planned Jeep plant on the east side of Detroit may be a different story. The surging popularity of SUVs and Jeep itself, arguably the most valuable American auto brand in the world, offers lots of upside opportunity to its parent company.
Couple that with Trump's build-it-in-America shtick and Detroit's business-friendly reinvention, and the chance to ground Jeep's growth in the former Arsenal of Democracy associated with the brand's World War II heritage is too compelling to pass up — even if it's no guarantee a next-generation Grand Cherokee will top the American-Made Index a few years from now.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM