What are the makings of a well-thought-out, well-built, well-performing car? Forward-thinking design. Precision tooling. Skilled workers and quality workmanship. Structural integrity and functionality. Quality parts and components. A great car has them all. A good, or really good car, has some or most of those inputs and attributes in equal quantity.
The average car is made up of thousands of parts–some large composite ones, like the engine, itself made of thousands of individual pieces, which is then installed as a unit, others discrete or truly singular things like nuts and bolts. Every piece needs to be machined, inspected and connected to another piece–welded, bolted, glued, screwed or snapped on by people, by robots, by people manipulating robots–generally on an assembly line that can roll out many hundreds of finished automobiles in a day. There are “bespoke” cars, too, many parts of which are handmade and hand-finished, and which are priced accordingly. How well each of the steps is accomplished, how much attention paid to ‘tolerances’ (how tightly the windows and doors close), paint and trim finishes, and overall consistency, determines a car’s quality and long-term, reliable serviceability.
The manufacturing/assembly stage of virtually ever car starts out at the basic building-block level, what’s known as “body in white”–that point where a car body’s sheet metal components have been welded together, before painting and before moving parts (like doors, hoods, and deck lids), components like the engine, chassis sub-assemblies, and trim elements (like glass, seats, and electronics) have been assembled in the frame structure. According to Wikipedia, “In car design, the Body in White phase refers to the phase in which the final contours of the car body are worked out, in preparation for ordering of the expensive production stamping die.” Considerations including crash worthiness, manufacturability, and aerodynamics are studied and evaluated at this stage, before a clay model from the design studio can become a Body in White ready for production.
. . .And Where Are Cars Really Made?
Where a car is actually produced, its “nationality,” is ever harder to specify, given globalization and the fact that automakers and suppliers trade in parts from all over the world, then build, assemble and sell different components and the finished vehicles anywhere and everywhere (with manufacturers continually refining new designs and technologies, Korean, European and Japanese automakers all have assembly plants in America). So “foreign” versus “made in the U.S.A.” gets a bit blurry. According to Consumer Reports.org, “In 2014, about 11 million vehicles from a dozen brands were built in the U.S. But they vary considerably in the percentage of U.S.-manufactured components they use.” New cars have to display a parts-content window sticker (required since 1994 by the American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA) that shows the final assembly point, source of the engine and transmission, and which countries supplied 15 percent or more of the vehicle’s equipment. But the Act does count parts from NAFTA member Canada with those sourced in the U.S. Everywhere else is “foreign,” including even Mexico, also part of NAFTA.
“You’re never going to get a car made 100 percent in one country anymore,” says supply chain expert Eric Fedewa, Global Market Intelligence at Eaton. “What you’ll typically see instead is larger components made near the point of sale, to save shipping costs, while small components like electric motors and actuators will be brought in from anywhere.”