DETROIT TheStreet) -- Thanks to the introduction of the new Camry, an old debate has taken on new life. As they
introduced the 2012 model last month, Toyota ( TM) executives touted the car's status as the auto industry's "most American-made car" on the influential list published each year by Cars.com, a Web site with car-buying advice. "Thank you for your tremendous dedication and for building the industry's most American-made car," CEO Akio Toyoda told workers at the company's Georgetown, Ky. plant.
"Our team members are very proud of the fact that not only has the Camry been the most popular car in America for going on 10 years -- it's also the most American made," added Wil James, president of the Kentucky plant. "More than 80% of the parts that go into the Camry come from American suppliers so this vehicle alone is responsible for a lot of jobs across the United States." The location of parts production, referred to as "domestic content," is a key criteria when Cars.com compiles its annual "American Made Index," ranking the "most American" cars. But the ranking is also based on where the car is assembled and sales volume. The last criteria, sales volume, is a point of contention, because it can lead to such counter-intuitive choices as ranking cars manufactured by Japanese firms ahead of cars manufactured by an iconic American firm. In its most recent list, issued in June 2011, Cars.com ranked Camry as the most American car, with Honda ( HMC) Accord coming in second. Third was a GM ( GM) car, the Chevrolet Malibu, while the Ford ( F) Explorer was fourth and the Honda Odyssey was fifth. "In today's global economy, there's not an easy way to determine just how American a car is," said Patrick Olsen, Cars.com editor in chief, in a prepared statement issued when the survey was released. "Most cars built in the U.S., for example, are assembled using at least some parts that come from somewhere else. Additionally, many U.S. automakers assemble vehicles in Canada and Mexico, while foreign automakers have opened plants on U.S. soil. Our index is another resource that car buyers can use to help guide their purchase decision."
Still, to many, it seems counter-intuitive that cars made by Japanese manufacturers can rank ahead of cars made by American companies. The American Automotive Policy Council, which represents the Detroit Three in Washington, has taken the lead in promoting the interest of its clients in such debates, which are important because it's believed many auto buyers consider whether a car is "American" when making their purchase. Olsen said a 2009 survey by Cars.com determined that 23% of car buyers are concerned about the issue, and some surveys show 40%. "Domestic content is a big factor in what makes a car 'American,' and we're proud that Ford and GM use one and a half times more domestic content than Toyota, on average," said former Missouri governor Matt Blunt, president of the American Automotive Policy Council, in an e-mail interview. "Chrysler uses nearly twice as much domestic content as Toyota," Blunt said. "All told the difference between Chrysler, Ford and GM and their foreign competitors was great enough to build 2.2 million more American cars last year. "I would also add that while domestic content is a big factor in deciding what makes a vehicle American. It is not the only factor," he said. "The fact that Chrysler, Ford and GM are headquartered here and conduct the bulk of their research here should be considered as well." A problem with the Cars.com list, Blunt said, is that too much weight is given to the volume of cars sold, with too little given to the domestic content of the vehicle and its parts. This is such an emotional issue that in 1992, Congress could not resist getting involved. It passed the American Automobile Labeling Act, which requires cars to have labels specifying their percentage of U.S./Canadian parts, the country of assembly, and the country of origin for the engine and transmission. Here are the top five vehicles from the most recent AALA list. By the way, the list is not exactly current. We eliminated the Ford Sports Trac, the Mercury Mountaineer and the Dodge Dakota. All three would have been in the top five, but they are no longer manufactured.