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"Domestic' is tough to define

Nowadays it's hard to tell which cars are American and which are imports.

The Ford Festiva and Pontiac LeMans are made in Korea. Mercury Tracers come from Mexico. Dodge Colts and Stealths are imported from Japan.

Mazda announced this week its new 626 model is expected to be the first car from a Japanese company to be classified as a domestic based on the U.S.-supplied proportion of its labor, components and other costs. It will be made in Flat Rock, Mich.

And Honda says three-quarters of all the cars it sold last year in the United States were made in Ohio. The U.S.-made Accords and Civics have a domestic content of 75 percent, the Japanese automaker says.

"Our cars are a lot more American than a lot of cars with "American' nameplates," says Kermit Whitfield, a Honda spokesman in Marysville, Ohio, where the company employs 10,200 people.

Hidden behind the smokescreen of Japan-bashing and "buy American" rhetoric in recent weeks are economic truths about the globalization of the automobile industry.

For starters, each of the Big Three automakers is involved in a partnership with a Japanese manufacturer. Ford and Mazda are partners, as are Chrysler and Mitsubishi and General Motors and Isuzu.

The partnerships can mean import agreements, shared technology or joint-venture plants where U.S.-nameplate and Japanese brand cars are made side by side. A California plant, for example, makes Toyota Corollas and Geo Prizms for GM.

Moreover, cars under all nameplates are made with some components, such as aluminum wheels and pollution-control devices, that are made in other countries.

"It drives me crazy to see (Chrysler's) Lee Iacocca go over to Japan and start criticizing unfair trade practices," says Jim Williams, an Oldsmar-based consultant to car dealers nationwide.

Assuming it matters, and it clearly does to the U.S. economy, how can a consumer tell how American any car might be?

"Right now, there's no good way to do it," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. "There's no such thing as a 100-percent American car," he adds.

Generally, U.S. manufacturers say, their overall product lines are roughly 90 percent domestic content. They say the cars they import and put their names on are low-volume sellers that would be uneconomical to build here.

"It's important to step back and look at the big picture," says Ford spokeswoman Della DiPietro. "The vast majority of our vehicles are domestic."

"I'd like to point out a wide range of Chrysler vehicles are built here," says Chrysler spokesman Tom Jakobowski.

It may some day become easier for people to find out how American the cars they buy actually are. Debates over content are likely to intensify, particularly over how formulas are calculated.

U.S. automakers, for example, contest whether Hondas are really 75 percent American. Some would like to see a sticker in the window of every new car expressing the percentage of U.S. content.

Cole says globalization has been beneficial in keeping car prices lower than they might otherwise be and in improving quality.

For example, Ford's Hermosillo, Mexico plant, which makes the Mercury Tracer and some Ford Escorts, was patterned after a Mazda plant in Japan. It is widely considered to be one of the most efficient car plants in the world.

Still, Cole and others say the Japanese have not created enough jobs at their car factories in this country to replace those lost with the shutdowns of U.S.-owned plants.

"A great fallacy is that a car built in a transplant plant brings employment," says Ray Windecker, a Livonia, Mich. car consultant. "It's not true. It transfers employment. People in other locations are laid off."