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Made in America? Answer not always clear

The 2014 Portland International Auto Show will draw thousands of potential car buyers to the Oregon Convention Center next week.

When car shopping, many think they need to buy American cars for patriotism, Asian for quality or European for luxury.

But today, all cars are international cars. The manufacturer’s home has little to do with where its cars are built. Initial quality studies show a variety of countries of origin as top performers, and automakers from around the world are poised to knock Europe off its luxury perch.

Of the top 10 cars sold in the United States in 2013, six carried foreign nameplates — seven if you count Chrysler’s Ram division, now owned by Italy’s Fiat. The majority of each of those models was assembled in the U.S. by American workers, with the exception of the award-winning Ram pickup, of which many are imported from Mexico.

Even Ford and GM’s top sellers carry an increasing amount of foreign-made content, since many of the expensive entertainment, electronic and advanced safety systems are sourced from foreign suppliers. As many as two-thirds of the Ford Fusions sold in America (the top-selling domestic sedan on the sales list at 11th), are imported from Mexico. The percentage of U.S. versus foreign parts content is now displayed on vehicle window stickers.

The flow goes both ways. GM, for example, sold four times as many Buicks (more than 800,000) in China during 2013 than it did in the U.S.

If you’re looking at economic impact, several factors are as important as the automaker’s home country. Where the vehicle is assembled, the parts are sourced, and the vehicle is sold and serviced all carry as much or more economic weight.

Oregon’s contribution to parts and assembly is small, but the industry still employs more than 11,700 workers with an annual payroll of $575 million at dealerships across the state, according to 2012 data from the National Automobile Dealers Association. Oregon’s $7.1 billion in auto sales represented 13.1 percent of the total retail sales in the state, according to the NADA study.

The results of the 2013 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study shows six U.S. brands ranked above average, including GMC at No. 2 on the list. There are five Japanese, three German, two Korean and one British brand rated above average. (Technically, Jaguar no longer is a British brand, since it was sold to India’s Tata Motors in 2008.)

Although IQS rankings vary from year to year, it’s apparent that the Japanese marques no longer have the monopoly on quality. It’s not that they’ve drifted lower, it’s that everyone else’s scores have improved.

European nameplates have long been regarded as the pinnacle of luxury, but several competitors are nipping at their heels. Cadillac’s ATS and the Lexus IS are solid competitors to the BMW 3-Series. The Hyundai Equus and Kia K900 look to be a bargain in the luxury sedan class, where they battle feature for feature with the venerable Mercedes S-Class. The Germans also are facing pressure from the Italians, with the new Maserati Ghibli starting at around $60,000.

One final note: Remember that the Heartbeat of America — the Chevy Camaro — is a Canadian.

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