What Makes an Import an Import? It's Not So Clear

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By moving more "imports" to U.S. breweries, beer companies are following a road long traveled by foreign-owned automakers, which have been churning out cars at U.S. plants for many years.

Volkswagen got attention as far back as 1978 when it started making cars in southwestern Pennsylvania. Although the plant closed in the late "80s, the German automaker came back to the States this year, opening a Passat plant in Tennessee. Japanese makers have been particularly aggressive here, of course, with several plants throughout the Southeast.

Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen Passat

When Toyota rolls its first Corolla off a new Mississippi plant this week,it will mark the 17th foreign-run U.S. plant in the auto industry, up from 13 in 2004, according to IHS Automotive, a forecasting and consultancy company. And as the plant numbers grow, perceptions keep changing among U.S. consumers, who are putting less emphasis on origin. "For most people, they don't even know where their car is built, and a lot of them don't particularly care," said Dave Sargent, VP-vehicle research at J.D. Power & Associates.

Of course, that 's not stopping foreign companies from touting their U.S. plants in an attempt to win over more buyers. For instance, when Kia opened its first U.S. plant in West Point, Ga., a couple years ago, it ran a TV ad featuring an American boy riding a bike through rural roads and into the plant, described as the "proud home of the all-new Sorento."

Do such ads work? "I don't see that it's a deal maker or breaker," said Rebecca Lindland, director of research for IHS Automotive.

Rather, local production seems driven by more practical reasons. When companies produce where they sell, they can offset currency fluctuations, for instance. And just like some beer companies, some automakers believe the brand's heritage is more important than where it's built. The trick is to have a strong brand, said Steve Cannon, VP-marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA. The global company has production facilities in 35 countries.

"Mercedes stands for something -- whether it's produced in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or China. ... It's about delivering on a quality promise," he said. The C Class, for example, is made in South Africa -- certainly nobody's idea of an auto-production hotspot.

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