Most ‘Most-American Vehicles’ Wear Foreign Badges

Six foreign-brand entrants are in Cars.com’s top-10 list of vehicles made in the U.S.

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

June 18, 2024

4 Min Read
Tesla Model Y ranked first in Cars.com’s “Most-American Vehicles.”Tesla

BIRMINGHAM, MI – Tesla, an automaker that wasn’t around when the “Buy American” movement took root about 50 years ago, scores the highest in Cars.com’s latest Most-American Vehicles Index.

Ironically, six vehicles in the annual study’s top-10 list are international brands.

Electric-vehicle maker Tesla, with factories in California and Texas, took three of Cars.com’s top-10 spots: No.1 (Model Y), No.4 (Model S) and No.9 (Model X).

The rest of the best: Honda Passport (No.2), Volkswagen ID.4 (No.3), Honda Odyssey (No.5), Honda Ridgeline (No.6), Toyota Camry (No.7), Jeep Gladiator (No.9) and Lexus TX (No.10).

(Full ranking here.)

Ranking is based on five factors: assembly location, parts sourcing, factory employment and powertrain/propulsion system origins.

No mass-produced vehicle contains 100% all-American content. The highest is 75% content.   

Production location is the main index factor. For example, the VW ID.4 battery-electric vehicle moved up in the ranking after the German automaker moved its production to Chattanooga, TN.

Although not in the top-10, domestic automakers General Motors and Ford ranked relatively high on the index. That’s largely because they operate so many U.S. plants. But they lagged behind others in the content category.

“A number of people were surprised Ford and GM weren’t higher on the list,” Jenni Newman, editor-in-chief of Cars.com, an online automotive marketplace, says during an Automotive Press Assn. presentation in metro Detroit.  

Vehicles that are low on the Most-American pole are the Ford Maverick pickup, Ford Mustang Mach-E and GMC Sierra. All are Mexican-made.  The Ram 1500 Classic moved up in the Cars.com ranking after its production moved from Mexico to Warren, MI.   

Origins of 'Buy American'

The “Buy American” movement began rather contentiously in the late 1960s as Japanese automakers such as Toyota and Honda made inroads in the American market.

It was common back then and in the early 1970s to see “Buy American Cars” bumper stickers. Some "advocates" held public protests by taking sledgehammers to old Toyotas.

In the recession of the early 1980s, when domestic automakers were laying off workers because of falling sales, so-called “Japan-bashing” became particularly bellicose.      

A rallying cry of American car companies was “If you sell them here, build them here.” Which is exactly what international brands started doing in the 1980s. Dozens of transplant auto assembly plants now are located across the U.S., mainly in southern states.

They came about largely because it’s typically cheaper to build vehicles in the market in which they are sold opposed to shipping them across oceans.

"Buy American" has become less virulent but Cars.com says lots of Americans still care about a vehicle’s provenance, particularly because 5.4 million people work in the U.S. auto industry – from factory workers to dealership staffers, says Patrick Masterson.

He’s the lead researcher for the Cars.com study that looked at 400 vehicle models.

“Shoppers (in America) want to buy American,” he says. “More than half in a survey (56%) said they are willing to pay more for a vehicle if it creates U.S. jobs. Of those, 58% say they are willing to pay 10% more.”

Newman qualifies that declared willingness to pay more, noting that what surveyed people say they intend to do and what they actually do don’t always match up.

“When it comes time to signing the check, reality may kick in if someone is paying 10% more and on a budget,” she says.

Still, she adds: “Every vehicle on the ‘Most-American’ list should be honored for its contribution to the (domestic) economy.”

Dealer Perspective

John Luciano, dealer principal of Amarillo (TX) Street Volkswagen says that although some of his customers are interested in where a vehicle of interest is made, most aren’t all that concerned.

“About 85% of them are asking something along the lines of: ‘Does it fit my needs, can I fit seven people in it – and can I afford the darn thing?’” he tells WardsAuto.

As far as customers who buy the VW ID.4, their interest is less in its being built in Tennessee, and more about the $7,500 federal tax credit that comes with it, he says. “Follow the money.”

Luciano, a 44-year automotive veteran who started his career as a dealership porter, recalls that, when he sold Toyotas, many shoppers specifically wanted a made-in-Japan car because they perceived the quality was better.

“And many older BMW buyers specifically want their car built in Germany,” he says.

BMW imports many of its car models to the U.S. But virtually all of its utility vehicles are built in South Carolina, home of BMW’s largest assembly plant. It makes 1,500 vehicles a day, many of them for export to global markets.

Car Shoppers: A Diverse Group

Car shoppers are nothing if not varied. While some American consumers care if a car is made in America, others couldn’t care less.

Asked by WardsAuto about that, Cars.com researcher Masterson replies: “I care.” He’s not alone.

He says, “Over the last year, domestic manufacturing was thrust into the spotlight by the recent United Auto Workers organizing efforts and continues to be a hot topic with the impending presidential election.”

Yet he adds: “When it comes to the global automotive industry, the badge on the hood doesn’t always reveal a vehicle's economic contributions.”

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