As you look to score an end-of-year bargain in 2013 model vehicles, is American made at the top of your list of essentials? If so, you’re not alone. Seventy-eight percent of Americans would rather buy an American-made product, according to a nationally representative survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center last fall. And 75 percent want to buy local, saying that they are more likely to buy from a company with a manufacturing plant in their home state. Most respondents cited retaining manufacturing jobs and keeping domestic manufacturing strong as reasons for buying American. They even said they would pay more for products built in the USA.
Even with information on the window sticker, it can be a challenge to readily identify just how American a car really is. You’re as likely to find a Toyota made in America as a Ford made across the border. And in today’s global economy, your car is the sum of its thousands of parts from almost as many suppliers, foreign and domestic.
Red, white, and huh?
Gone are the days when car shoppers looking to make a patriotic purchase could simply choose by brand. Take for example, the Chevrolet Spark and Toyota Sienna. More than 75 percent of the Chevy’s parts (including the engine) are from South Korea, where the vehicle is assembled. Its automatic transmission is made in Japan. By contrast, 75 percent of the Toyota (including the engine) is American, and it’s assembled in Indiana.
To further illustrate, the quintessentially American brand Chrysler is now owned mostly by the Italy-based Fiat and partly by the United Auto Workers Retiree Medical Benefits Trust. Plus, several of its models are not built in the United States. Confusing matters further, many foreign automakers have factories and R&D operations here and employ American workers to design, develop, and build vehicles.
As you head to the dealer for an American car, a good cheat sheet to use is the Kogod Made in America Auto Index. Frank DuBois, a global supply chain management expert and professor at American University, developed the list based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), along with the location of headquarters, design, research and development, and where the profits go.
On this list, GM dominates the top 10 (which is really the top 34 due to several ties).
The top 5 most-American cars
1. GMC Acadia
1. Buick Enclave
1. Chevrolet Traverse
2. Dodge Avenger
2. Ford F-Series
The GM triplets, Acadia, Enclave, and Traverse, are tied for first place while the Chrysler and Ford are tied for second. All have at least 75-percent U.S./Canada content, and an American engine, transmission, and assembly. (See the full Kogod list.)
The easiest way to select a red, white, and blue model is to look at the new car’s window sticker. There is a section called “Parts Content Information” with basic build details. This information comes courtesy of the American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA), which requires passenger vehicles to have labels specifying the percentage of their U.S. and Canadian parts, the final assembly location, and the country of origin of the engine and transmission. If any country comprises more than 15 percent of a vehicle’s content, it has to be named.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assembles this data for the stickers and also lists it online. NHTSA.gov allows you to search for models by year, either alphabetically or by percentage of American/Canadian content. You can look up production information such as country of assembly on more than 300 cars, trucks, and vans from 2007 to the present.
At the top of the government-maintained list for 2013 is the Dodge Grand Caravan with 80-percent U.S./Canadian content, Canadian assembly, U.S. and Mexican engines, and an American transmission.
NHTSA’s top 5 most-American cars
Dodge Grand Caravan
See the full NHTSA/AALA list.
DuBois points out that the NHTSA/AALA list has some shortcomings. For example, the AALA treats U.S. and Canadian content as the same, making a car’s pedigree more “North American” than American. Manufacturers report their own data to NHTSA, and there is no audit or third-party verification of that information. Furthermore, if they say cars have 70 percent U.S./Canadian content, the law allows them to round up to 100 percent. And finally, manufacturers can game the system by consolidating carline information in order to make vehicles look more American. (A carline is defined as a group of cars with the same basic design but which may differ in terms of features such as type of engine, transmission or body style.)
For example, DuBois says, most Toyota Corollas sold in the United States are made here and report 70 percent U.S./Canadian content. But there are a significant number of Corollas that are actually made in Japan and exported to the United States. According to AALA rules, Toyota can consolidate all Corollas into one carline and affix a label implying that an imported vehicle has the same amount of American content as a vehicle that was actually made stateside, even if its engine, transmission, and assembly took place overseas. The same occurs with the Honda Accord, which lists 65 percent U.S./Canadian content. That is true for the majority of the vehicles in this carline, but there are a significant number of Accords sold here that were actually made in Japan with Japanese engines and transmissions.
To make sure the individual car you’re buying is not confused with the carline and is truly American, you can check the 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN). That long string of numbers and letters that uniquely identifies a vehicle can give you some important details. For example, the first character in the VIN will tell you where the car was assembled. Numbers 1, 4, and 5 represent the United States. Canada is identified as 2, Mexico is 3, Japan is J, and South Korea is K.
There are many factors to consider in choosing your next car, including safety, reliability, test performance, and ownership costs. For some shoppers, being American made is among the top criteria. The key lesson here is to look more closely at the information and check the window sticker, the Kogod Index, NHTSA website, and/or VIN to ensure that you’re buying and flying the right flag.