Sorry, Mom: The Toyota Avalon Is The Most American Car Made Today

Dec 1, 2012
Originally published on December 1, 2012 1:26 pm

I grew up in a car family. Not car enthusiasts; car makers. My grandfather worked for General Motors in Detroit on the assembly line beginning in the 1940s. My mother was a middle manager at Ford's Chicago assembly plant in the '70s. I worked at the same plant during summers in the '90s. Today, one of my cousins works for Chrysler and another works for an auto supplier.

Like millions of other African-American families, my family went from being small-town subsistence farmers to being middle- and upper-class workers thanks to the U.S. auto industry. For my family, "buying American" has been a manifestation of not only patriotism but racial pride.

But what does it mean to buy American? The auto industry has changed profoundly since my grandfather took the train from Thomasville, Ga., to Detroit during World War II.

Because of transportation costs and global currency fluctuations, among other things, car makers in the last 30 years have started making cars closer to where they are sold. As a result, the nationality of the car companies can get a little complicated.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration issues a report each year that details the cars that are made in America. The report looks at where the parts, the transmission and the engine come from.

According to the latest report, the most "American car" is the Toyota Avalon, which is built in Georgetown, Ky. Eighty-five percent of that car's parts are sourced from the U.S and Canada — a higher percentage than for any car made by a U.S.-based manufacturer. Honda just celebrated its 30th anniversary in the U.S.

It's not just about currency fluctuations and labor costs. Car companies need to build cars where they sell so they can build the right car, according to Rebecca Lindland, Director of Research for IHS Automotive. "You have to be local to understand what motivates that person to spend six months of their pay on your product."

The industry is converging in terms of style, design, feel and quality. "Twenty years ago [an] American car drove in a very distinct way compared with [a] foreign car," says Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor of Automobile Magazine. "That's disappearing."

As foreign car makers have expanded in the U.S., U.S. automakers have expanded overseas. The Ford Fusion, for example, is now made in Mexico.

And my mother now drives a Volvo.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The L.A. Auto Show is under way. Thousands will pack the Los Angeles Convention Center as car companies from around the world display their latest. Included in the ranks are U.S., Korean, Japanese and European automakers. But as the auto industry becomes more and more global, does your car's nationality really matter? NPR's Sonari Glinton looks for the answers, at the L.A. Auto Show.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: One of the things that's fun about car shows is that they're shows - as surely as a movie, a circus, or a play on Broadway. Just like those shows tell you something about culture, car shows tell you something about the culture of the auto industry.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Introducing the new, 2013 Honda Civic!

GLINTON: The Honda Civic is as good an example as any. What's the culture of a Honda Civic? Is it an American car?

JOHN MENDEL: I'm John Mendel, I'm the executive vice president of Honda - American Honda, in Torrance, California.

GLINTON: Mendel has been working for Honda for less than a decade. He spent three decades before that, at Ford. He says his new company is American, and part of the American auto industry.

MENDEL: By the way, when you say American auto industry, people don't - any longer - have to put the quotes around it. (LAUGHTER) 'Cause, you know, 95 percent of what we sell here, by 2016, will be made here in North America. Last year, it was 90. We've had a longstanding policy of local content and local production.

GLINTON: Toyota and Honda build their best-selling cars in the U.S. Not only do they assembly their cars here; they get the parts, the transmissions, the engines, in the U.S. and Canada. The car with the most American parts is the Toyota Avalon. Rebecca Lindland is with IHS Automotive.

REBECCA LINDLAND: It's almost imperative, from a balance sheet perspective, to build where you sell.

GLINTON: Cars are not like phones or computers. The parts - and the cars themselves - are extremely big, and expensive to build and ship across vast distances. And if you build a car in Japan, and the yen rises in value - as it has - it's more expensive to buy those cars, in the U.S. Lindland says increasingly, car companies are learning that they need to get the culture of the driver right.

LINDLAND: You want to be local. You have to be local, to understand what motivates that local person to spend six months of pay on your product.

GLINTON: More and more car companies are moving their production facilities, like so many chess pieces on a board. Joe DeMatio is with Automobile Magazine. He says that's changing the fundamental feel of the driving experience.

JOE DEMATIO: Twenty years ago, American cars drove very - in a very distinct way, compared with foreign cars. And that's disappearing.

GLINTON: DeMatio says foreign carmakers learn from American drivers. And the U.S. car companies have learned from their foreign competition, like Buick.

DEMATIO: They feel very, very German. My mother has a Buick from the '90s. And if she got into one of these new Buicks, she would not recognize it as a Buick. She would think it was a - you know, one of those fancy foreign cars.

GLINTON: Jake Fisher is the director of auto testing, at Consumer Reports. He says the auto industry is converging in style, design, and even quality.

JAKE FISHER: Well, it's getting all mashed up right now, in terms of what's the quality between the auto manufacturers. You know, there was a day that it was basically like this: The Japanese cars, they were at the top; European cars were down at the bottom; American cars were in the middle. But you can't look at them that way.

GLINTON: Almost everyone I talked to, at the auto show, says distinctions like American or Japanese are meaning less and less. But some cars will never become a part of the global melting pot - like the Chevy Camaro, which is built in Canada.

BRIAN MOODY: No matter where the Chevrolet Camaro is built, the spirit of it is American.

GLINTON: Brian Moody is with He says cars like the Camaro, are increasingly the exceptions.

MOODY: The spirit of it will always be American. It's an American company. It has its roots in America. It's an icon. People consider it to be part of their history.

GLINTON: But Moody says cars like the Camaro or Mustang, are holdovers from other times. The future is part Korean, part American, part Japanese, part European - and someday, part Chinese.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.