So What Exactly Is An American-Made Car? You May Be Surprised

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2011 Coda Sedan prototype - front

2011 Coda Sedan prototype - front

Enlarge Photo

We wrote about the 2011 Coda Sedan and Coda's EV cost calculator not too long ago, and described the cars as a "Chinese-built sedan" with a battery pack "containing Chinese-made lithium-ion cells."

The Coda, we said would be "the first Chinese-manufactured passenger car sold in the U.S. when it arrives." Which prompted a note from Coda's Matt Sloustcher pointing out that "final assembly of our vehicle will take place in California."

Final assembly: Driving it off the line

Technically, that means that the 2011 Coda Sedan will be "American manufactured," not Chinese-manufactured as we'd written. And some of its key driveline components (electric motor, motor controller, DC-DC converter, and transaxle) are built in the U.S.

Tesla Roadster final assembly, Menlo Park, California, April 2009

Tesla Roadster final assembly, Menlo Park, California, April 2009

Enlarge Photo

The same is true of the 2010 Tesla Roadster as well: The rolling body of the car, complete with interior, is built by Lotus in Hethel, England, and shipped to Tesla's California plant, where the battery pack (containing Asian-made cells) and electric motor are installed.

These two cars represent a new model for auto manufacturing, and we're not aware of any other carmakers who import "gliders"--complete vehicles minus their powertrains--for local assembly.

Gasoline cars built in volume are virtually never shipped long distances minus their engines. Rather, engines are shipped to the final assembly plant where--in most cases--the bodies are stamped from steel, welded, painted, and assembled into a running vehicle.

U.S. versus NAFTA 

So how is a car determined to be "American-built"? Generally by the place where it's driven off the end of the assembly line under its own power. And who builds the most vehicles in the U.S.? GM, of course, and then Ford, followed by ... wait for it ... Honda. Yep, Honda.

With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the industry usually refers to "North American" built cars--including those from Canada and Mexico. There, Chrysler and Toyota come out far ahead of Honda, which builds mostly inside the U.S.

But, there's the domestically-produced content issue. The Coda, for example, may be American-built, but early cars have just 35 percent U.S.-made content (by value).  That number, says Sloustcher, will rise once Coda begins manufacturing battery packs in the U.S.

2010 Toyota Camry

2010 Toyota Camry

Enlarge Photo issues an American-Made Index that looks at both assembly location and parts sources. On their metrics, the # 1 U.S.-made car is the Toyota Camry, followed by a tie among the Ford Escape, Ford Focus, and Honda Accord.

Does 'Made in America' matter?

We asked Sloustcher what his research showed about how car buyers reacted to the notion of a "Made in China" car.

His response:  "We think potential customers understand the fundamental changes globalization has had on business in general. They also understand that quality products come from all over the world."

"When consumers experience the Coda first-hand and see reviews from the press or other third parties," he went on, "we are confident they will react based on the attributes of the car and not a perception."

So what do YOU think?

Then he turned it around and asked us what we thought about the same question. So we're putting it to you: Do you care whether a car is "American-made" when you look to buy it?

And how would a "Made in China" label affect your perception of a new car?

Please leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

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Comments (6)
  1. The Ford Connect EV vans are using the exact same business model.
    The Ford made 'gliders' are made in Turkey then shipped to Azure Dynamics to have a Siemens (German) motor and a Johnson Controls-Saft (US/French) battery installed.
    Prepare to see a lot more 'Glider' business models as EVs gain market share.

  2. With the way the Auto industry works, there are very few companies that have 100% of parts from one country of origin. For me, as an American, it does not matter much. I drive a Japanese built Mazda from the Hiroshima plant. But some parts are from Ford made elsewhere.
    Somewhere along the line, an American business is getting the buyer the vehicle. I just want a car that runs.

  3. Easy.
    American Made means "manufactured in USA" - as opposed to manufactured in Mexico or Canada.
    Therefore, Mexican-built Ford Fusions are by definition "imports", whereas Honda Accords & Hyundai Sonatas assembled by the hands of American factory workers in the USA are clearly American Made.
    Support the American factory worker = Buy American! = Accord, Camry, Sonata!

  4. I would not buy a Chinese mad car if it was the best car o n the market. I also would not trust the American press to be objective.

  5. In the future your Cadillac CTS's might be made in China. So get over it people. It's a global industry and has been far longer than you realize. American nameplate car companies only pretend to make an issue out of it, because you are stupid enough to keep making an issue of it.

  6. Cars that state that its made in the USA, should include the "percentage" built in the USA, not America, and not North America! A vehicle made in North America may be made in Canada, and an American car may be made in Mexico.

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