Photo: BMW

With trade tariffs, expansion into China, the slow death of sedans and General Motors’ closure plans, automotive production seems to be in the news more now than it’s been since the Great Recession. Which plants builds what cars and where is a complicated subject now, and it’s harder than ever to determine what exactly constitutes an “American” car versus a “European” one and so on. So which American factory leads in auto exports? Once again, it’s not even technically an American company.

BMW announced this week that, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, it again leads America in automotive exports by sales value. This is thanks to the plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, BMW’s biggest global plant and the producer of most of its X crossovers and SUVs.

Photo: BMW

BMW said the plant—which makes all the X3, X4, X5, X6, X7 models and their M and hybrid versions sold worldwide—exported 234,689 cars abroad in 2018, a value of more than $8.4 billion. BMW said 356,749 SUVs were made there in total.

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Again, that leads exports by value and not exports by volume, which isn’t surprising considering these are expensive luxury SUVs. Recent data on the latter is harder to come by. I have a feeling it’s probably Ford when you consider the ubiquitousness of the F-Series truck line and that 125,000 Michigan-built Mustangs were registered globally in 2017 alone.

Even so, the importance of BMW’s South Carolina plant can’t be overstated. It began production 25 years ago with the E36 3 Series and today makes nearly all BMW’s SUVs, employs 11,000 people and is a vital part of the local economy, especially when you consider all the support industries around auto plants like trucking, shipping and parts suppliers.

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That it’s in a right-to-work state and can thus stave off unionization has surely been a plus to BMW, as has been the case in the rest of the South. BMW’s workers make generally quite a bit less hourly than their UAW counterparts do.

As we covered last year, the plant has faced a great deal of uncertainty with President Donald Trump’s trade war threats and the possibility of retaliatory trade tariffs as high as 25 percent. Those could hurt BMW’s profits on the cars it ships overseas from America. In theory, such tariffs could lead BMW to produce its SUVs outside the U.S., like in China. In spite of that uncertainty—which BMW mentioned in this announcement and has openly criticized before—the automaker remains committed to a $600 million investment at the plant through 2021 to build more SUVs.

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Meanwhile GM has been catching plenty of hell from residents in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley over the end of the Cruze plant, one of the last major industrial employers the area had, all while production of the new Chevrolet Blazer—sure to be a strong seller in today’s crossover-crazy market—heads to Mexico instead.