Do Car Buyers Care About 'Made in America?'

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The Independence Day holiday appears to infuse some number of car buyers with the inclination to buy an American-made car, even though it remains difficult to define exactly what is an American-made car.

A recent survey by TrueCar.com showed that the Detroit Three produced eight of the top 10 vehicles purchased between June 27 and July 10 in 2011, an indication that the holiday inspires patriotic shopping trends. But a survey by Cars.com found that only 23% of U.S. car buyers limit themselves to "American-made" vehicles when car shopping.

Our own anecdotal survey said that half of U.S. car buyers want to buy a vehicle produced by the Detroit Three, while the other half wants to buy a vehicle as long as it is not produced by the Detroit Three. These two types of car buyers are typically married to one another.

In any case, the criteria regarding "American-made" remains conflicted. While a survey by Cars.com indicated that the "most American" car is the Toyota Camry, a list based on the American Automobile Labeling Act said it's the Toyota Avalon.

Regarding the buyers, "last year around the Fourth of July the American new car buyer chose to purchase vehicles that were built in the USA or had an American nameplate," said TrueCar analyst Kristen Andersson, in a prepared statement. "Made in the USA is a strong statement that resonates with consumers."

The Cars.com survey indicated that 23% of U.S. car buyers limit themselves to American vehicles, and of those 45% would buy a vehicle produced by a foreign automaker if they knew the vehicle was assembled in the U.S.

Conversely, 7% of U.S. car buyers consider only vehicles made by foreign manufacturers. Of those, 61% would consider a vehicle made by one of the Detroit Three if they thought the quality was better than it has been.

Regarding the vehicles, the 2012 list of the top 10 Most American Cars, compiled by Cars.com for its annual American Made Index, ranked the Toyota ( TM) Camry as the most American car for the fourth consecutive year.

The Cars.com index considers not just the hometown of the manufacturer, but also domestic parts content and final assembly point of the vehicles, as well as a controversial aspect: the quantity of U.S. sales. By this measure, Camry benefits because it is not only produced in the U.S. but also is the best-selling car in the U.S., so that production employs a relatively large number of U.S. workers.

"When people think about buying an 'American' car, they might just think automatically of the Detroit Three," said Cars.com editor Patrick Olsen, in a prepared statement. "In reality, this classification isn't as cut and dry as it used to be. Today, Fiat owns a majority stake in Chrysler, companies like Toyota are increasing production of their vehicles in the U.S. and parts are coming in from all over the globe."

"U.S. sales are a component of our index for a number of reasons," Olsen said. "It's safe to say that the more a vehicle sells, the more U.S. workers are involved in production and delivery of the vehicle and the more U.S. dealers are profiting."

Another way to rank the most American car is to use the list compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which ranks based 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.

In this list, the Toyota Avalon is the most American car, with 85% of its components made in the U.S.

By the way, another complexity in determining the relationship between the U.S. and the automakers operating plants here is embodied in this question: What automaker is the leading exporter of vehicles from the U.S.? Hint: It is neither one of the Detroit Three nor a Japanese company.

Rather, the answer is BMW. In 2011, the value of BMW passenger vehicles built in Spartanburg, S.C., and exported through the Port of Charleston totaled $7.4 billion, the highest export value for any U.S. automaker. The cars are exported to more than 130 global markets. About 70% of the plant's products, which include the BMW X3, X5 and X6, are exported.

On the TrueCar list of the 10 most commonly purchased vehicles during the July 4 period in 2011, four were GM ( GM) products: Chevrolet Silverado was first, Cruze was second, Equinox was fifth and Malibu was seventh. Ford's ( F) F-150 was fifth and Escape was 10th. Chrysler's Dodge Ram pickup was fourth and the Jeep Grand Cherokee was ninth.

Third place went to the Nissan ( NSANY) Altima while the Camry, in short supply during the survey period in July 2011, ranked eighth. Andersson acknowledged that the preference for Detroit Three products "could be a result of the lack of inventory from the Japanese earthquake, but the data shows that American car buyers are open to buying a car made in the USA."

Nine of the top 10 vehicles are assembled in the U.S., with assembly of the 10th -- the Equinox -- scheduled to be moved to Spring Hill, Tenn., during the second half of 2012.

In the Cars.com list of the 10 Most American Cars in the American Made Index, winner Toyota Camry was followed closely by the Ford F-150.

Toyota, Honda ( HMC) and GM accounted for eight of the 10 vehicles on the list. GM's vehicles included the Traverse (sixth), Acadia (ninth) and Buick Enclave (10th) all built in Lansing, Mich. In addition to the Camry, Toyota also has the Sienna (fourth) and Tundra (seventh). Honda ( HMC) Accord was third while Pilot was fifth. Chrysler Jeep Liberty ranked eighth. All 10 are assembled in the U.S.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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