Buy American… If You Can

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

“Buy American” … It has a nice, nationalistic, flag-wavin’ sound to it. But the problem is, there isn’t much to buy anymore (car-wise or otherwise) that’s truly American.

Chrysler , for instance, is now controlled by Italian automaker Fiat. And before that, Chrysler was a subsidiary of another foreign industrial conglomerate, Germany’s Daimler AG.Recent Chrysler-badged cars like the popular 300-series sedan and the not-quite-so-popular Crossfire coupe were basically custom-bodied knock-offs of Mercedes-Benz designed vehicles (the E-Class sedan and SLK roadster), fitted with Chrysler-built engines.

Even though Chrysler and Daimler have been divorced for quite some time now, the 2011 “Jeep” Grand Cherokee and the “Dodge” Durango still have Benz M-Class DNA in their sheetmetal. For many years (pre-Daimler) several Chrysler vehicles used Mitsubishi-built engines — or were, in fact, Mitsubishis in toto, albeit with slightly different exterior styling and a “Dodge” badge glued to the fender. (Remember the ’90s-era “Dodge” Stealth? It was a rebadged Mitsubishi 3000GT).

Not to pick on Chrysler.

GM and Ford are guilty, too — if guilt is the right term for what is today an extremely common practice. From out-of-the-closet “partnerships” with the Japanese competition (remember Geo?) to relationships less obvious — but nonetheless, still intimate.

The point being, it is not easy to find a new car that is 100 percent American. Built here, with parts made here.

Many of today’s cars (or their major components) are assembled in different countries before being sold under the nameplate of their home country — and this goes for the “imports” as well as the “domestics.” For instance, GM and Ford both have assembly plants in Mexico. Meanwhile, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai have plants in the United States. There are “American” cars that are built entirely in Mexico — and “Japanese” cars that are built entirely in the United States. Next year, Nissan will buy Dodge Ram pick-ups from Chrysler, badge ’em as “Nissans” and sell ’em as “Nissans.”

Which of these is the “foreign” car? Is it the name on the fender?

What is the magical percentage of “domestic” content? Is it 50 percent? 70?

Who gets to decide?

But when you buy an American-brand car, it is said, the profits stay in America. Well, not necessarily. Money is fungible — and profits is profits. Resources can — and do — go overseas, or across the border, to finance (for example) new plants in other countries (such as GM’s new plants in China) and, if you’re going to be straight about it, jobs for foreign workers in those foreign plants that by definition come at the expense of American workers, in the sense that those jobs are not available to American workers.

GM could make Buicks here, using American workers — then ship the cars to China. But it’s cheaper (for GM) to build them in China — in part because of lower labor costs — so that’s what GM does. And, memo to the ardent Buy America crowd: The profits from those sales go into the pockets of GM executives and GM shareholders — not “America.”

Contrariwise, if you buy a Nissan built in Tennessee by an American worker you have helped to support an American worker .


This is the reality of the global free market — and of the multinational conglomerate, which is what all car companies are, no matter their long-ago origins as representatives of the “motor city” — or wherever.

The plain fact is is there’s no such thing anymore as an “American” car company — or, for that matter, a “Japanese” one. Money moves about as easily as dry leaves on a windy October afternoon. Your new car dollar will be divvied up myriad ways — a portion going to pay for your new car’s Brazilian-sourced transmission, its German-made electronics or maybe even its Japanese-built engine.

Even if you carefully research and confine your buying expedition to only those cars with an “American” nameplate that are built entirely in U.S. plants, you will almost certainly still be purchasing some degree of foreign content — and thus, at least a portion of the profit earned from the sale will go to support the foreign company’s operations, including those “un-American” across-the-border plants and the purchasing of foreign-built parts and components.

Just a reality check.

Economic nationalism sounds rugged and manly — and maybe it’s a good thing, if it worked both ways. If, in fact, you are supporting the home team by purchasing the home team’s products — and the home team, in turn, supports you by not offshoring and outsourcing and all the rest of it. Which of course, the home team does not do.

Consider that before reflexively purchasing a “Ford” or “GM” car assembled in Mexico vs. a Honda that was assembled in Ohio by Americans.

The bottom line is — or should be: Buy the best car for the money, for you.

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