To admirers, the American car is the ultimate expression of freedom, a terrestrial comet skimming across a barren highway.
To detractors, the American car is a fuel-gulping beast, a steel behemoth that symbolizes industrial decline.
Love it or hate it, no other consumer product ignites as much passion or has had such a profound impact on every aspect of American life.
Yet the fate of the American car is unsettled. The nation's three homegrown automakers — Ford Motor, General Motors and Chrysler — are running on fumes, victims of a miserable economy, changing consumer tastes, a few painful mistakes and the pressure of foreign competition. Now Toyota, not GM, is the world's largest automaker. And the Obama administration is set to name a team to oversee the industry.
Today, Chrysler and GM will tell Congress what they've done with federal bailout funds they've been given, again igniting the debate: Is the domestic auto industry worth saving, and if so, what will it look like in the future?
What is an American car?
In the U.S. auto industry's golden age after World War II, there was no question about what constituted an American car.
Steel was made in Pittsburgh, tires were made in Akron, Ohio, and the cars were designed, built and sold in the USA. The profits — and they were plentiful — stayed here, too.
Today, the lines aren't as clear.
GM's Pontiac Vibe and Toyota's Corolla are built in the same factory in Fremont, Calif. About 65% of the parts for Japan's Honda Accord come from the U.S. or Canada vs. 50% of the parts in a Chevrolet HHR. Accords are made in Marysville, Ohio. The Chevy HHR, a small SUV, is assembled in Mexico.
"There truly isn't an American car anymore," says Ron Harbour of consultant Oliver Wyman's automotive practice. "Every car has parts from all over the world."
In the past several decades, import brands have invaded every crevice of the American automotive landscape.
Foreign automakers have their own factories in the U.S., and they offer broad product lines, from small, fuel-efficient cars to full-size pickups, SUVs and crossovers that fall squarely on Detroit's turf. They've whittled away Detroit's once-commanding share of the U.S. auto market. GM, Ford and Chrysler together sold eight out of 10 new vehicles in April 1984. That shrank to five out of 10 by December 2008.
Now the definition of "American car" has shifted to a definition of American car style.
And what is that style?
"A relatively large, easy-to-drive sedan or crossover
"You can't find them anywhere else."
Americans say they would rather buy domestically made products. Three-quarters of 537 car shoppers surveyed on its website by Kelley Blue Book in December said they prefer to buy U.S.-made products.
A third remain loyal to Detroit's Big 3.
From Model T to the future
A century ago, Model T's brought motoring to an emerging middle class. A half century ago, teenagers cuddled in convertibles at drive-in movies. A new generation of drivers sees cars as an extension of their plugged-in lives, with iPods, DVD players and other gadgets.
The federal government has lent $17.4 billion to GM and Chrysler, and they may need more. And though Ford hasn't yet asked for a bailout, it is inching closer to needing one. This month, it tapped its last remaining lines of private credit.