Where is my New Car Really Made?

Let’s bust a few myths about where that shiny new car of yours actually comes from

It's very hard to know where any car is really made. It's easy to presume, and be dead wrong. In practise, the car industry does not want you to know. And yeah; it matters.

We've got allegedly German cars built in South Africa, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Spain. So-called Japanese cars that come from 'Straya, the UK, India and Thailand.We’ve got notionally American cars coming from Mexico and Canada, and allegedly South Korean cars coming from the Czech Republic and India. There are even French cars coming from South Korea, and Italian cars from Poland. 

It’s a multi-cultural motoring mish-mash, and the car industry really doesn't want you to think too hard about it. Not on the cusp of writing that big, fat cheque. Especially ze Chermans.

Would you rather buy a Nissan Micra or a Hyundai i20? If you're scratching your head about the relative merits of 'made in Japan' versus 'made in South Korea', don’t bother. They’re both made in India, which is famous for curries, and does a mean line in Ghandi. But cars? Not so much long-term pedigree there.

How about the Japanese car from Australia or the Japanese car from Thailand, or the Japanese vehicle from the United Kingdom? Maybe we should say sayonara to Japanese authenticity right now. But there’s more on that coming up.

Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to be sitting in a BMW dealership, luxuriating in a 3-Series on the showroom floor, sipping some espressos, with the salesperson salivating because she can sniff your blood imminently in the water. Do you suppose she’d correct you if you mentioned casually that you really can tell the difference when a car is made in Germany?

The BMW 3-Series is actually manufactured at a factory in Rosslyn in South Africa. The Volkswagen Polo is authentically South African as well.

I've got nothing against South Africa - except that a proud heritage of cutting-edge car making isn't exactly in their national DNA. They're more renowned, historically, for racial vilification, Nelson Mandella, and lions. I like lions. And Nelson Mandella. But especially lions. However, it's racial vilification for the latter part of the 20th Century that's kept South African labour costs really low. Not lions. Certainly not Mandella. 

Which is why BMW and Volkswagen both like having their factories in South Africa. Because it's cheap. Just don’t tell the customers. And, they’ve got lions. Just outside the fence. Really hungry ones. It incentivises the workers.

Let’s keep moving the decimal point to the right. I like that. And I like lions. Imagine yourself in a ‘death star’ Audi dealership, poised to drop the big bucks on the flagship Audi Q7 SUV. You’re thinking: Have that wrapped, my good man, and sent to my room. And, have it upholstered in wildebeest, would you? $50,000? 

Like, the black AmEx is out. Will that be pin or sign, sir? Would you hesitate before dropping it all on the dotted line if someone tapped you on the shoulder in that moment and said, mate, the Q7 actually comes from the Slovak Republic? 

Can you even point to the Slovak Republic? Can you name two of its next-door neighbours? Volkswagen and Audi (same coin; different faces) has a plant in Bratislava churning out Q7s by the truckload. It's not exactly Germany, but they do a mean cheese-filled dumpling. And fried carp - with potato salad. It’s true. 

The same factory in Bratislava also makes the not-really-German-either Volkswagen Touareg. It's on the western edge of the eastern half of the former Czechoslovakia. Underneath Poland. There’s a marketing concept. Slovakia: We’re just under Poland. Come for the cheese-filled dumplings, stay for the Q7.

Those Audi execs in Bratislava. I can see the Christmas cards. Greetings from Bratislava. Wish you were here. Instead of me.

If, on this basis you say 'bugger that' and turn instead to the authentically German BMW X5 or the Mercedes-Benz ML or GL Classes, I've got some news for you about that, too, and you’re probably not gunna like it: the Bavarian Money Waster and the Benzes are all made in the United States. At least car making is in Uncle Sam’s DNA... Only, Uncle Sam does it very badly. This really narrows the authentically German SUV options.

So, let’s downsize. The Audi Q3. What’s that? Spain. Right. Proudly fighting bulls, drinking sangria ... and helping torpedo the Euro since about 2009... the sangria and the bulls: even before that. But not successfully making cars so much.

Renault makes the Fluence and the Koleos in South Korea. The Audi A3 comes from Hungary. The Dodge Journey comes from Mexico, along with the Volkswagen Jetta. And - while we’re talking Volkswagen, the super-slick Scirrocco and Eos: they’re both Portugese, and the Caddy is Polish (proudly on top of Slovakia). They’ve never even sniffed Wolfsburg. None of them.

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re in the hunt for a new ute. Utes are very popular these days. M-a-a-a-a-t-e. So, let’s start at the top, hunting for something European. Bit of cachet … the Volkswagen Amarok. Obviously. Ze German build quality again ... right? Huh? Except it's actually manufactured in … can you guess? … Argentina, a country far more renowned for its double-digit inflation than its ability actually to build cars. At least it’s honest about being so corrupt - Argentina: ranked 100th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2011 - so: Good on Volkswagen for doing business with them. With your money.

Hypothetically, maybe off the back of that whole inconvenient ‘funding Argentinian corruption?’ ethical dilemma, perhaps you decide instead to buy a Japanese ute. Simple. After all, the Japanese are the global gurus of mass production. Nobody does it better. Made in Japan beats made in Argentina every time. So, let’s find a Japanese ute. Huh? Right. Good luck with that. Finding one. 

The insanely popular Toyota HiLux and the Nissan Navara are actually made in Thailand. So is the Ford Ranger and the Holden Colorado, as well as the Mitsubishi Triton and the Mazda BT-50. And the Isuzu D-Max. So it’s actually impossible to find a Japanese ute that’s ever authentically seen the sun rise in the land of the rising sun.

Perhaps something sexy and diminutive is more your style. Say, the Fiat 500 – a beautiful piece of Italian retro flair right there. Milan catwalk, here we come. Ciao. Prego. It’s actually built in Poland, which admittedly is only slightly to the north on the world stage, but stylistically poles apart (get it?). Proudly on top of Slovakia. Famous for salami, shock therapy, and that salient lesson to regimes everywhere on why you really shouldn’t put the whole government on the one economy flight, back in 2010. But not renowned, really, for making cars.

Likewise the sexy Renault Megane. That French flair. [TURN.] Right. It comes from Turkey. Otherwise famous for rugs, baklava, and delight. I like delight. And lions. Those crazy Ottomans. Or is that Otto-men? I always get that confused. Carpet - delight - cars. An obvious progression.

The Audi TT, unarguably one of the world’s most beautiful cars: [TURN … SIGH] proudly made in … wait for it: Hungary. Hungarians: the global gurus of goulash. Still grappling with fundamental human rights … but they make the TT. And they do it so cheaply.

The big question is: Does any of this really make a difference to you? The car industry will say it doesn’t. Yet you'd need to put a gun to their heads to see a 'proudly made in Slovakia' (just under Poland) sticker on an Audi Q7, or 'South African, sensational - and we’ve got lions incentivising the workers’ banner across the windscreen of a BMW 3 Series. Or a Volkswagen Polo.

Those factories are in those countries because they offered the lowest labour costs, close enough to the primary markets for those vehicles. It's all about the icing sugar of ‘premium’ on the cake of cost cutting. These are not exactly sweat shops - it's not Wal-Mart's shirts or Nike's shoes we're talking about here. But if you're not careful, you might make a purchase expecting an authentically German or Japanese car, and actually drive off in something less than the sum of expectations that helped form your decision to buy it. And that’s the problem. Informing consumers so they can make a balanced, informed decision. 

Nobody official will au contriare any of your presumptions - in Hungarian, Turkish, Slovakian, Argentinian or Mexican - not during your entire customer 'experience'.

Show me the premium carmaker prepared to say: ‘we’ve kept the cost down by exploiting cheap labour in South Africa, Argentina, Slovakia, Turkey, Poland, Mexico or Thailand. This is the large scale marketing of false pretences by inference. You’re allowed to believe what you want, based on your perception of the brand, and you just about need to be Hercule Poiroit to uncover the truth. 

It’s absolutely disgraceful, unprincipled and unethical. The car industry should hang its head in shame, Germans first. And Australian consumer regulators should be likewise reviled for allowing this to go through to the keeper, absolutely unacknowledged.