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The least American 'American' cars

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
The 2015 Dodge Challenger is unveiled at a media event at the Jacob Javits Convention Center during the New York International Auto Show in New York April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)

The badge says Dodge and the styling screams Detroit. Yet the Challenger muscle car is assembled in Canada, with engines on some variants built in America but others manufactured in Mexico. One of the available transmissions is American-made, but another comes from Germany and a third from Mexico. Overall, the Challenger rates just 57.5 out of 100 on a scale measuring how “domestic” the car really is, making it one of the least American models sold by a supposedly American automaker.

It’s no surprise that a product as complicated as a car—with as many as 30,000 individual parts—is built with materials from all over the globe. Yet a breakdown of foreign and domestic content in each model in showrooms today reveals that very few models are, in fact, Made in the USA.

Cars assembled in America routinely include components from Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan, South Korea and many other places. The opposite is true, too, with U.S. made components showing up in many cars assembled overseas. Global supply chains allow automakers to build cars as efficiently as possible and save money that often gets passed on to consumers. But that can leave an awfully confusing road map for car buyers trying to figure out if they’re buying an American-made car, or one from someplace else.

An annual report from the Kogod School of Business at American University reveals which cars are truly domestic and which aren’t. Kogod crunches data automakers are required to provide the government on where major components of each model come from. The rankings also include scores for where the parent company reports its earnings, where research and development takes place, and other corporate information. The rankings are meant to reveal which models most benefit the U.S. economy from inception to production, not just which have the most U.S. parts.

That information is more useful than anything automakers are likely to provide on their own. The window sticker on every new car, for instance, is required to list the percentage of parts from the U.S. and Canada combined, but not to break out the U.S. portion. Automakers often tout a vehicle's "North American" footprint instead of just the U.S. portion, because of significant automotive operations in Canada and Mexico.

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The top six models in the 2015 Kogod report all belong to General Motors (GM), as GM has been quick to herald. The Buick Enclave, Cadillac CTS coupe, Chevrolet Corvette with automatic transmission, Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia and GMC Denali all earned the highest score -- 87.5 out of 100. Other popular models scoring above 80: The Ford (F) Explorer and F-150, along with the Chevy Equinox and Malibu.

Many models sold by U.S. automakers, however, aren’t quite what they seem. Here are the least American cars sold by U.S. automakers:

Chevy Spark. Domestic content score: 15.5 out of 100. Assembled in: South Korea. As a general rule, automakers are more likely to build larger vehicles in the U.S. and smaller ones overseas. That’s because profit margins are higher on bigger cars, allowing more room to absorb U.S. labor costs that are higher than in many other countries. GM first sold this car in Korea under the Daewoo nameplate, then brought it to the U.S. in 2012.

The 2016 Chevrolet Spark. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Ford Fiesta. Score: 19.5. Assembled in: Mexico. This subcompact first went on sale in Europe, where small cars are far more popular due to higher petrol (sorry, gas) prices. It arrived in the U.S. in 2010.

Chevy Trax. Score: 20. Assembled in: South Korea and Mexico. This compact SUV is new to the U.S. this year, but it’s been on sale in Canada, Mexico, South Korea and other countries since 2013.

Buick Encore. Score: 27.5. Assembled in: South Korea. The Encore is an upscale version of the Trax and was first sold in Europe as the Opel Mokka.

Cadillac SRX. Score: 31.5. Assembled in: Mexico. This crossover is bigger than other phantom domestics. The engine is also manufactured in Mexico, accounting for the low score.

Dodge Journey. Score: 42. Assembled in: Mexico. This crossover would score a bit higher except Kogod gives parent company Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) just half credit for being based in the United States. The company still designs and builds many cars in the U.S., but it’s headquartered in the Netherlands while paying corporate taxes in the U.K.

Lincoln MKZ. Score: 45.5. Assembled in: Mexico. The engine and transmission are produced in the U.S. and exported to Mexico for final assembly.

Dodge Challenger. Score: From 36.5 to 57.5, depending on the model. Assembled in: Canada. Again, this model would score higher if parent Fiat Chrysler were based completely in the U.S.

Chrysler 300. Score: 57.5. Assembled in: Canada. Built in the same plant as the Challenger.

Dodge Charger. Score: 60.5. Assembled in: Canada. Built alongside the Challenger and 300.

(Note: We’ve excluded low-volume models most consumers wouldn’t even know about.)

The most 'American' cars made by foreign automakers

Just as there are phantom domestic cars, there are some models built by foreign automakers at U.S. plants that have more domestic content than vehicles produced by GM, Ford and Chrysler. In fact, all major foreign nameplates except Mazda, Subaru and Volvo have U.S. factories. Here are the five foreign models with the most domestic content:

Honda Odyssey. Domestic content score: 78.5. Assembled in: Alabama. This minivan scores high because the biggest components—the engine and transmission--are also produced in the United States.

The 2014 Honda Odyssey. (AP Photo/Honda)

Toyota Camry. Score: 78.5. Assembled in: Kentucky. Toyota (TM) also builds engines and transmissions at U.S. plants, including those in the Camry, which ties the Odyssey for highest domestic content among imports.

Toyota Sienna. Score: 78.5. Assembled in: Indiana. Different state, same story: All major components are U.S.-made. Were Honda and Toyota headquartered in the U.S., all three of these models would be at the top of the domestic content list.

Acura RDX. Score: 76. Assembled in: Ohio. More “American” than the Chevy Silverado, Dodge Durango or Ford Escape, according to Kogod's rankings.

Honda Accord. Score: 76. Assembled in: Ohio. The Ford Fusion, a direct competitor, ranks 13.5 points lower, because some models are assembled in Mexico. But don’t expect Ford to tell you that.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.