After hearing recent rumors about Chinese companies potentially buying up Fiat Chrysler, a coworker suggested that the move could do a number on Ram, Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep sales (especially truck sales). I disagree; I think the average person won’t really care. And that’s because the idea behind what makes a car “American” is a lot more complex than just who finances the operation.
I think it’s safe to say that many car buyers in the U.S.—particularly truck buyers—are more inclined to buy products that are “American.” The problem is, nobody really knows what it means for a car to be “American.” Does it have to do with where it’s built? If that’s the case, then is a Toyota Camry American? I bet if you asked a typical American, their answer would be “no.”
Does a car’s American-ness have to do with where it’s developed? If so, then is the Honda Ridgeline—which was designed in Torrence, California and engineered in Raymond, Ohio—an American truck? Again, if you asked your average American that question, the answer would probably be a negative.
Is a car more American if it is built using mostly American parts? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Part 583, American Automobile Labeling Act requires all automakers to determine what percentage (by value) of each car’s parts comes from America or Canada. In addition, carmakers have to state the origin of the engine and transmission. But if you look at the parts content of the cars sold in the U.S., you’ll see Honda at the top of the U.S./Canada Parts Content list. And again, the average person probably doesn’t think Honda is American.
Where a vehicle is built, where it’s designed, and where its parts are from are clearly not the deciding factors on what makes a car “American” to most people. And I think, like those three factors, where the parent company is based is also not that important to consumers.
Right now, the entire Ram, Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge line is under the umbrella of an Italian company, and I bet most customers don’t even realize it. Those who do, though, clearly don’t care (Ram and Jeep sales have been through the roof for years). The same was the case when those brands were under the DaimlerChrysler umbrella, and also when Jeep was technically owned by the French over at Renault. Nobody looked at a Jeep CJ-5 or Wrangler and thought it was German or French; Jeep has always been seen as American.
My point is that it doesn’t matter to most people where money funnels in from, what matters is brand perception, which can be built with some clever marketing. People still consider Volvo Swedish, even though it’s owned by Chinese company Geely. People still think of Land Rover as British, even though it’s owned by the Indian company Tata.
Like these two brands, Jeep, Ram and Dodge will almost certainly continue to be designed and engineered where those brands got their starts (the U.S.). Those brands have a history in America, and for consumers’ perceptions of those brands to overcome that inertia and to actually think of Jeep, Dodge and Ram as “foreign” is going to take a heck of a lot more than just new ownership.
To be sure, there will always be people out there who care about where a vehicle is built and designed, how much of it is made up of American parts, and who owns the manufacturer. And China has definitely been a hot topic, so the public may be more sensitive to it than if Italians were to keep ownership of FCA, or if it went back to the Germans. But the vast majority judge how “American” the brand is by the emblem on the hood of their car—not which company’s profit margins they’re padding.
The parent company doesn’t sell the cars. Dodge does. Jeep does. Ram does. Chrysler does. And those brands have identities which, so far, have transcended the nationality of their corporate overlords. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do the same under Chinese ownership.