In Detroit, foreign auto makers wave the US flag

3 min

Detroit (AFP)

Pledges of loyalty to the United States, touting local investments and cars draped in red, white and blue.

At the annual Detroit auto show, foreign manufacturers have put their American patriotism on ostentatious display.

The trend by itself is nothing new, and the brand message of global manufacturers often is tailored for local markets.

But this year, with the imminent inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, this professed devotion takes on greater significance, especially at the key showcase for the auto industry, which has come under frequent attack.

The president-elect has singled out US and foreign auto manufacturers, threatening them with steep import tariffs if they sell cars on the US market that were made in Mexico.

The auto industry has invested heavily in Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labor and access to duty-free trade within the North American Free-Trade Agreement, a pact Trump also has attacked.

Some auto makers have made goodwill overtures toward Trump, including Toyota, which on Tuesday fortuitously announced $10 billion in US investment over the next five years, and calling attention to the fact that it employs 40,000 people in the United States.

- Foreign NASCAR enthusiasts -

The newest Toyota Camry draped in the stars and stripes and emblazoned with the words "Made in America" was a prominent feature in the Japanese auto maker’s area of the convention center in Detroit.

Behind it were two Toyota Tacoma and Tundra pickups, the latter bearing a map of Texas, where it is assembled.

The red, white and blue Tacoma also let visitors know that Toyota participates in the US Chamber of Commerce's "hiring our heroes" program to provide jobs for American military veterans.

The company "wants to be genuinely involved in American culture," Detroit-based auto industry analyst Bertrand Rakoto said.

"Toyota is the only foreign manufacturer to get involved in NASCAR," the popular US stock car racing series, he said.

Nearby, a Hyundai SUV was decorated with the logo of US National Football League, which it sponsors, though American football has only limited appeal in South Korea.

Images of the US flag also are displayed across the screens above the display by Volkswagen -- which is still righting its ship after its emissions cheating scandal -- where it is showcasing its large new SUV, the Atlas.

VW's US boss Hinrich Woebcken described the Atlas as "designed for the American lifestyle and built here in the US in our state-of-the-art factory in Chattanooga," Tennessee.

He pointedly did not say that the other new SUV unveiled this week, the Tiguan, rolls off a Mexican assembly line.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn took advantage of the Detroit auto show to brag that his company has "a 33-year history of investing in the United States" and currently employs 22,000 people there.

The company's plant in Smyrna, Tennessee is "the largest industry plant in North America," working at full capacity to produce 642,000 cars last year.

In fact, as a buffer against currency fluctuations and to avoid import duties, Japanese, South Korean and German manufacturers have built numerous production facilities in the United States over the last 30 years, particularly in the South rather than near Detroit, the traditional home of the US auto industry.

- Still a patriotic purchase -

This is the case for Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen, whose US output quadrupled between 2009 and 2016, rising to 850,000 units from 214,000, according to the German auto association VDA, which called this "a clear commitment to the US as an industrial location," especially given that 59 percent of these units are exported.

Sweden's Volvo also hopes to set up a factory in Charleston, South Carolina to make cars for export.

Whatever the make, "vehicles bound for the US market are mostly manufactured in the US," auto analyst Rakoto said.

American consumers want to buy American, he said.

"An American Honda or an American Toyota is still a patriotic purchase after all and manufacturers are openly betting on this," he said.