The most American-made cars may not be made by the most American car brands. Four out of the top 10 most American-made vehicles of 2018 are made by Japanese brand Honda, according to the annual report from Cars.com.
"It's part of the globalization of automotive manufacturing," Cars.com Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder said in a phone interview. "The brand on the vehicle isn't the only part of the equation of what makes it American."
The Honda Odyssey, for instance, is built in Lincoln, Ala., and is made with 75 percent domestic parts. Compare it with Buick, which is considered to be as American as the red, white and blue in its badge: the Buick Envision crossover is manufactured in China with only 2 percent domestic parts, said Wiesenfelder.
The Odyssey (ranked second) sold in its home country doesn't share much with the larger one here, just to give some perspective on how confusing it can be to assign nationalism to a brand. The other Hondas cracking the top 10 were the Honda Ridgeline pickup (third), Honda Pilot SUV (sixth) and Acura MDX midsize SUV, all made in Alabama on a shared platform to simplify manufacturing. The Acura MDX (seventh) is also made in East Liberty, Ohio.
"The way the American-made Index has been built was to reflect U.S. economic impact," Wiesenfelder said. "You can't tell what the U.S. economic impact is based solely on the brand."
The global nature of auto manufacturing means parts can be sourced from all over the world then produced domestically, with profits funneled to headquarters in another country.
The most American-made car in the first quarter of 2018 is the Jeep Cherokee, manufactured in Belvidere, Ill. But Jeep is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, an Italian company headquartered in London. Fiat rescued Chrysler from bankruptcy in 2009 and earlier this month made a commitment to invest globally in Jeep and Ram while Chrysler and Dodge will be lower-volume regional brands.
"I think Chrysler is going to continue to be relevant in the U.S.," FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said of the company's five-year strategic plan. "Don't expect it to be a global brand."
Globalization has diluted nationalism for automakers beyond the United States' Big Three of FCA (formerly Chrysler), Ford and General Motors.
"Jaguar Land Rover is an iconic British brand owned by Tata Motors in India," Wiesenfelder said. "Volvo is a Swedish car company owned by Chinese company Geely. Does that mean Volvo is not a Swedish brand anymore? Our position is there is no clear answer."
The American-made Index attempts to define where a car model comes from and where its revenue goes because it's insightful for consumers.
"People have a good idea of what they want to buy, and will research things to dissuade them," Wiesenfelder said. "This is another data point."
A Cars.com survey of 1,000 participants found that 71 percent believe buying American contributes significantly to the U.S. economy. The vast majority (82 percent) also believe buying American-made vehicles creates more jobs in the U.S. So is buying Volvo good for America?
Yes, if you're buying the redesigned S60 sedan. Volvo just opened its first plant in the U.S. on June 20 in Ridgeville, S.C. The Swedish brand owned by a Chinese multinational with an American factory invested $1.1 billion in the area just inland from the port city of Charleston. It makes the S60 and will employ up to 4,000 people to make the XC90 SUV in 2021.
This proves the difficulty in defining American-made when it comes to brands. And even individual models are becoming less and less definitively American. Last year, Cars.com tweaked the formula for its index because fewer vehicles were meeting the threshold of 75 percent domestic parts content.
"Twelve years ago when it started, over 60 vehicles qualified," Wiesenfelder said. "In 2016, we only had 8."
In 2016, the Toyota Camry topped the list. In 2017, it was the Jeep Wrangler. The latter is an American icon. The former is an American best-seller. Both vehicles were redesigned for 2018, and neither vehicle made the top 10 this year.
So it goes in the global manufacturing era.
Tesla is another American brand but only had about 50 to 55 percent domestic parts, which didn't make the cut for top 10, said Wiesenfelder.
The new methodology is variable, based on the domestic parts content of the top 40 percent of the model year's eligible vehicles. Excluded are low-volume models that sold under 2,500 units in the first quarter and all heavy-duty vehicles with a gross vehicle weight over 8,500 pounds, according to Kelsey Mays, senior consumer affairs editor at Cars.com. Mays said 114 models were eligible for the ranking this year. Of those 114, the 45 models with the highest percentage of domestic parts made the next cut for the five factors used in the rankings.
Information for domestic parts content can be found through the American Automobile Labeling Act of 1992, which requires manufacturers to label three things: the percentage of U.S. equipment on the car; the percentage of man-hours by U.S. workers assembling it; and the name of any other country where at least one-third of equipment originated. Cars.com added engine and transmission country of origin last year to give its index five data points to consider for economic impact.
"If consumers care about making car purchases that support the U.S. economy, it means looking beyond the assembly location," Wiesenfelder said.
The exact formula for the index is kept a secret. The Detroit-made Chevrolet Volt ranked fifth, while the Chevy Corvette out of Bowling Green, Ky., ranked 10th. America's best-selling vehicle, the Ford F-150 made in Missouri and Michigan, ranked ninth.
Illinois was home to three of the top 10, including the Ford Taurus (fourth) and Ford Explorer (eighth) manufactured in Ford's Chicago Assembly plant in the South Side neighborhood of Hegewisch.
"It's something for Illinoisans to be proud of," Wiesenfelder said. Cars.com is also headquartered in Chicago. "Illinois is right in the middle of the country, so it's great for distribution. And Chicago is the rail hub of the U.S. I don't know of a final assembly for an automaker that doesn't use rail. That works in our favor in Illinois."