Twenty years ago, car buyers knew that when they purchased a Toyota it was a Japanese car.
Volkswagen was German, a Jaguar was English, and a Fiat was Italian. Some people ONLY bought Swedish or ONLY American vehicles, adamant that only (insert country here) was capable of producing a vehicle worthy of their standards of performance, style or reliability. Those days are over – welcome to the global automotive world. While today’s trendiest cars still bear names that conjure images of their countries of origin, there is a pretty good a chance that it was built in Kentucky, Mexico or Poland.
Take the Fiat 500, for example. Tall men cringe at the idea of this fun little car – which was
originally made from 1957 to 1975 and then reintroduced as a “retro car” in 2007 – contemplating how origami-like they will have to become in order to fit in one. Unlike its earlier Italian-made iteration, however, the new 500 is produced in Brazil (where it is the market leader), Argentina, and Poland, with additional work being done in France, Turkey, Serbia, China and – of course – Italy!
Another comeback kid, the Volkswagen Beetle, was at one point in history a German automotive pop culture icon. A Beetle engine even SOUNDED German. But today, it is not just Fahrvergnugen anymore. Now it’s also La Alegria de Conducir (Mexico), O Prazer de Dirigir (Brazil) and (Thailand). Other countries where Beetles are born, in whole or in part, include
Ireland, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria and Australia. Even Japanese icon Toyota manufactures
the gas-saving Prius in China, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. By 2015, Priuses
will even be assembled right here in the good, ol’ U.S. of A.
What is behind this major shift in the automotive world? According to Alec Gutierrez of Kelly Blue Book, a leading source for automotive information, the globalization of the car industry is a
growing trend as companies open factories in markets around the world to cut down on shipping costs and minimize the risks associated with currency fluctuations. In the mid to late 1990s, 85-88% of all vehicles in the US were produced domestically (including most of the so-called “Japanese cars”) and only 15% were imported. Import numbers shifted downward with the advent of the hybrid industry, but that number has begun to change again because many imports are now being assembled in the U.S. Manufacturers are also producing parts in multiple countries in an effort to hedge against natural disasters and other local incidents that might impact production. For these companies, diversification of resources protects the entire industry from assembly slowdown or collapse.
How will the country-loyal consumer choose his or her next car, if not by the flag it flies? In the
early 20th century, the automotive industry forged a path of innovation, forcing the public to
change the way it thinks. 100 years later, it still does, and it may be time to move past the
concept of a car being a product of a particular nation.