Where Our Cars Come From
The US Is Just Part Of The Global Automotive Picture. We Go On A World Tour.
We tend to think of the United States as the global leader in automobile culture. After all, it’s the land where the Model T, Ford Mustang and American flag-themed pickup trucks have all had a role in making us the motorhead role models of the world.
And while it’s certainly true that Motor City’s Big Three—Chrysler, Ford and General Motors—have had a transformative role in the global transportation picture, they’re obviously no longer the only—or even biggest—game in town.
To give you the global lay of the land in auto, here’s the “It’s A Small World After All” tour of the many regions and countries making an impact in the car business.
As American auto production cools off, China has taken the crown as the hottest market for cars in the world. According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, Chinese carmakers produced some 24.8 million passenger cars in 2017, plus an additional 4.2 million commercial vehicles—more than 29 million in total.
By comparison, total U.S. production of cars in 2017 was just over 3 million, but our huge demand for trucks, SUVs and commercial vehicles added another 8.2 million to that number, for a total of more than 11 million made-in-America road machines.
If you consider the fact that worldwide automobile production exceeded 73 million in 2017 (plus another 24 million trucks and commercial vehicles), you begin to understand that the global love affair with four-wheeled transportation isn’t just confined to a single nation, or continent. Of course, the fact that China now makes one-third of the world’s cars is kind of a big deal.
But it’s not a simple story.
In fact, Buick—the oldest of living automobile brands in the United States and longtime stalwart of the GM family—has a huge presence in the Chinese market, with almost 1.2 million cars sold in 2017, a quarter of the more than 4 million GM vehicles sold in China. Buick’s sales in China actually account for 80 percent of the brand’s worldwide sales.
And while Chinese consumers are buying fewer cars as the country’s economy slows, Ford still sold more than 1 million vehicles in China in 2017—although just 2 percent of those were imported from the U.S. After all, the full-size F-150s and Raptor pickups popular here might have trouble fitting on China’s ultra-congested highways.
Mixed in among best-selling local makes such as the Wuling Sunshine and the Great Wall Wingle 5, China also produces locally built versions of the Chevrolet Malibu and Cavalier, the new Jeep Cherokee and Ford’s Edge and Taurus.
Our European friends are no slouches when it comes to car production, either. According to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, they produced nearly 17 million passenger cars in 2017, with Germans leading the charge with 5.7 million cars and the French turning out approximately 1.7 million vehicles.
Great Britain, whose Brexit woes see it rethinking its position in the European Union, also produced approximately 1.7 million cars in 2017—and not just the Jaguars and Range Rovers most of us know them for. The racer-boy favorite Honda Civic Type R is made in the U.K., as is the new Infiniti QX30—at a French-Japanese Renault-Nissan plant there. British factories still pump out most Mini vehicles, although BMW actually owns the brand now and builds its Mini convertibles in the Netherlands.
Even former Eastern bloc outlier Poland made more than 500,000 cars in 2017, although the only examples of those you’ll see in the U.S. market are Fiat 500s and, interestingly enough, the Buick Cascada convertible, which relies on a highly international supply chain. Likewise, Fiat may be as Italian as Pavarotti, but the company’s 124 Spider convertible is made in Japan by Mazda. Audi A3s roll off a production line in Hungary, and the ultra-blocky Mercedes-Benz G-Class is built in Austria.
And whatever happened to seeing French cars in the U.S.? If you happened to notice the flying Peugeot cop car Ryan Gosling was rocking in Blade Runner 2049, that’s about the closest many of us have gotten to that brand since the early ’90s, when they pulled out of the American market.
But don’t give up on the French cars just yet. Peugeot, which is now part of a massive company made up of French and European brands Citroen, Opel and Vauxhall, is planning to return to the U.S. market in the near future.
It’s a reflection that the business of European imports is changing—and it goes both ways.
Turns out, both mainstream and luxury European brands are now building many of their larger vehicles for the European market right here in the United States. A huge chunk of BMW’s SUV family, including the X3, X4, X5 and X6 are all made by American workers in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen builds both the new Atlas SUV and its Passat sedan at a multi-million-dollar plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz builds SUVs and vans at facilities in Alabama and South Carolina—which is also the state where Sweden’s Volvo is making its new S60 sedans.
Japan and Korea
Japan’s vaunted auto business is still a significant force, having produced 8.3 million cars and 1.3 million trucks and commercial vehicles in 2017. Brands including Nissan, Honda and Toyota are still a dominant force around the world, and their luxury offshoots (Infiniti, Acura and Lexus, respectively) do great business—as do smaller Japanese brands including Mitsubishi and Subaru.
Of course, Europe isn’t the only market to have discovered that making their vehicles in the United States with American workers can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Japan, too, is home to several notable companies observing this model.
Some 11 million Honda Accords have been built at the company’s Ohio factory since 1982. Meanwhile, U.S. plants also assemble Honda’s CR-V, Insight, Odyssey, Pilot and Ridgeline vehicles. Nissan and Toyota have invested heavily in their U.S. operations, and even those dog-friendly Subaru Outbacks are assembled in the heartland city of Lafayette, Ind., alongside the Impreza, Legacy and the new Ascent SUV.
In some ways, this arrangement is the ultimate win-win. The companies get to avoid import taxes, while America gets a host of valuable manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, South Korean car companies are slowly catching up to their Japanese counterparts, with companies including Kia and Hyundai domestically producing 4.1 million cars, trucks and commercial vehicles in 2017. But their American manufacturing footprint grows every year, as well.
Hyundai made almost half of its U.S.-market vehicles at a factory in Montgomery, Ala., which produces 400,000 Elantras, Santa Fes and Sonatas—as well as having a design facility in California, and testing facilities in Michigan. Kia’s plant in West Point, Georgia, turns out nearly 350,000 cars a year, including the Sorento SUV and the Optima sedan.
The Developing World
Other exponentially growing countries, including India and Brazil, have also turned into massive auto-making nations, building a mixture of American marquees and local brands for their booming populations.
Locally made versions of the Jeep Compass and the super-subcompact Ford Ka are both big sellers in Amazonia. Meanwhile, India produces approximately 4 million passenger cars, though the only mainstream Indian-made set of wheels you’ll find in the U.S.—besides some Mahindra tractors—is the new Ford EcoSport compact crossover, which is built in a factory in Chennai.
According to industry analysts McKinsey and Company, the future for a very international automobile business looks very strong indeed.
“Overall, the global automotive industry is in better shape than it was five years ago, especially in the U.S., where profits and sales have recovered following the recent economic crisis, and in China, where growth remains strong,” the organization notes. “By 2020, global profits for automotive OEMs are expected to rise by almost 50 percent… mainly from growth in emerging markets and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.”