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.
"It's a moment of transition," says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in auto issues. "We are looking at a world where alternative fuels and technologies will play a central role."
The U.S. auto industry was always on the leading edge of America's technological and economic progress. Whether it was the automatic transmission or anti-lock brakes, it was usually American automakers that developed them. Only in the late 1970s and 1980s did the Big 3feel threatened as gas shortages sent customers to fuel-efficient Japanese imports.
"Japan rethought the whole approach," says Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "You didn't have to have an acre of sheet metal for your hood."
But the Big 3 never fully embraced small cars, which weren't as profitable as bigger cars. And they were late to the hybrid game, watching environmentally conscious consumers flock to Toyota's Prius. So when gas prices hit new highs in the fall, they were left short with primarily big gas guzzlers to sell.
Now they are playing catch-up, vowing to use government bailout money and the current lull in sales to rethink and retool.
Job losses associated with the Big 3's unraveling have been staggering.
Since 2005, the Big 3 have announced cuts of at least 150,000 jobs through 2011, the Center for Automotive Research says. GM recently announced it will trim an additional 10,000 white-collar workers worldwide, 3,400 of them in the U.S.
But Detroit automakers still employ more than foreign car firms do. GM, Ford and Chrysler support direct employment of 239,341 and an additional 973,969 indirect jobs, the Center for Automotive Research says. Foreign plants employ about 113,000 in the U.S.
As a condition of their loans, Congress has insisted that GM and Chrysler become leaner and more cost-competitive with non-union foreign automakers that have U.S. factories. Experts give them a fighting chance.
"There is some chance that GM, Ford and Chrysler are going to survive," says Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director at Moody's Economy.com.
If they do, it will be because they worked hard to redefinetheir bloated image.
"Will the business look the same as today? Absolutely not," says Ian Beavis ofNielsen IAG Automotive Group, an advertising tracking firm. "It's going to be a leaner, more-focused industry than the past and is going to have a high level of government involvement."
Rebirth of the American car?
The American car of the future could be a plug-in electric. Or powered by natural gas. Or even hydrogen. The surest bet is a more efficient version of today's gasoline engines.
More cars will be designed to fit particular needs, but those needs will cross borders. And it's less likely that vehicles will be entirely for a single market, such as the American full-size pickup.
"People of the world will be driving more similar products," says Chrysler President Jim Press. Chrysler recently negotiated a deal that could bring Italy's Fiat small cars into the Chrysler lineup in exchange for an equity stake. Globalization is only the latest trend for the industry. "There are going to be jobs that are generated."
If American-made cars were to disappear, there are plenty of fans who would miss them. Frank Smeekes, for instance. Smeekes, an auto industry consultant for a firm called Russell Reynolds, loves American cars.
"Cars are more than just a means to go from A to B," he says.
One of his cars is a Jeep, which is made by Chrysler. He grew up in Europe after World War II, and Smeekes says the car is a reminder of Jeeps that soldiers drove to win the conflict.
He's Dutch, but he says his kids are proud to be Americans. Hence, an American car.
"There's an emotional connection," he says.
Contributing: Barbara Hagenbaugh
WHAT CAR OWNERS SAY ABOUT THEIR VEHICLES:
Why I drive American cars
Mary Ellen Hoerig Madison Heights, Mich. Vehicle: Dodge Caravan
I have driven Pontiacs for many years. I have always purchased American brands and will continue to buy the cars which will benefit our Detroit "3."
Why? For a number of reasons, the first being I was born and raised in Michigan. My family has always worked for the Big 3, or automotive suppliers or many of the Michigan businesses which are dependent upon the patronage and trade with autoworkers.
Secondly, I believe that the American auto manufacturers have quality vehicles. I had an Olds 98 for about nine years, and I have had the Dodge Caravan for seven years.
Thirdly, I believe one should support businesses in one's community. As trade imbalances (have) increased it is even more important to support the U.S. economy. The profit from U.S.-based foreign automakers does not benefit our economy. It returns to Japan or Korea or Germany or wherever headquarters is.
Lastly, just as the world associated the "cowboy" with the American West, we associate autos — and the world used to associate autos — with the American Midwest. The economy of Michigan has been suffering for many, many years. Other parts of the country have only recently begun to feel anywhere close to the despair, discouragement, anxiety and fear Midwesterners have felt. Give up on the U.S. automakers and you give up on what makes up the "American spirit." You join hands with the Southern senators, some of whom have never been in manufacturing, in cutting the legs off the backbone of this country.
Why do I buy American? I am an American.
Laurie Davis Rochester, N.Y. Vehicle: Chevrolet Impala
I have always driven a Ford, Chevy, Buick or Pontiac. Mainly because I don't buy new cars, so I buy an American car because I feel they are cheaper to maintain. Ironically, my dad sold and repaired foreign cars.
My very first car that I got through a friend of my dad's when I was 16 was a 1963 Ford Galaxie. From that point on, I have always liked to own a car with some "muscle" to it. I've always found a good, dependable American-made car for an attractive price.
Tony Czaplicki Jacksonville Vehicle: Lincoln MKZ
My wife and I feel the quality of the U.S. cars is equal to that of the foreign cars.
Our two most recent purchases were based on the deals we were able to get from dealers. The Lexus dealers wanted sticker price, the Infiniti dealer advertised a car and then went to the bait-and-switch routine, and the Acura dealer harassed us with multiple phone calls. The Lincoln dealer negotiated a price and provided customer service.
I love my Lincoln and would buy another.
Kevin Hill Birmingham, Ala. Vehicle: Buick Regal
I have always been attracted to American cars. The foreign cars were like a fling when I was younger. I thought I wanted them forever, but unfortunately they just don't live up to good ol' American comfort.
In today's age of weight-consciousness in America, the American car far exceeds the others in sheer comfort. I know we all like quality as well, but you just can't beat American cars for comfort. As an American, I can honestly say that despite all of our problems and misperceptions, we still can make a great product. In case no one has noticed, despite all the negatives we hear about everything, we still set the benchmark when it comes to most things in the world.
No one — and I mean no one — makes a more comfortable seat in a car. No one caters to the driver in the cockpit like we do. Foreign manufacturers may beat us on price a little, but when it comes to luxury, we win hands down.
Why I drive foreign cars
John Smith IIIAlexandria, Va. Vehicles: Mini Cooper and Nissan Maxima
My wife and I prefer foreign cars.
First, fuel efficiency is important to us as a young family, both as an economic preference, and because we prefer to consume as responsibly as possible. In this respect, American cars have really let us down.
It's not as if we set out not to buy American. But Toyota and Honda have long outstripped the Big 3, producing cars with responsible EPA gas mileage estimates (while) American automakers were touting the Hummer.
While gas prices are down, our view may seem crazy, and "buy American" is a great catch phrase. We don't think so. Instead, we prefer to think that we should "buy American" only when the American-made product is the best available. And I don't think that anyone can say that American cars are the best in fuel efficiency.
Second, we can't even say that American cars are the best made, notwithstanding their gas-guzzling. Since I've been able to drive or own a vehicle, from my first car, a Nissan 200SX, to my favorite car of all time, the Honda Accord, and my last vehicle, an Infinity QX4 SUV, I've always preferred foreign-made vehicles because of the design.
We'd love to buy American, and we see why big automakers need to be bailed out by Congress. But until the Big 3 shift their thinking from heavy-duty trucks and SUVs, to more fuel-efficient and comfortable vehicles, and consider how they can meet the needs of consumer budgets and preferences responsibly, we will continue to purchase and drive foreign-made vehicles.
Jed and Jonee Woodard Spanish Fork, Utah Vehicles: Honda Ridgeline and PT Cruiser
We had only purchased "Big 3"-made cars until our Ford Explorer left us stranded on a major Los Angeles Freeway — on vacation — with a seized transmission with only 80,000 miles on the vehicle.
Once my husband identified that this was a "known" problem on the Explorer, this was the last straw. We now purchase almost exclusively based on Consumer Reports reliability ratings. So when Honda came out with its first full-size king-cab pickup, we purchased one. With 80,000 miles on our Ridgeline, we have had zero extra maintenance costs.
In tough economic times, my husband and I can no longer purchase based on national pride. We have to have the most reliable, best gas mileage, highest resale option in the class, or we are throwing away money.
Sally Johnson Carmel, Ind. Vehicle: Toyota Avalon
My husband and I chose Toyota because the car is high-quality and has the design, look and feel that we like.
We test drove several U.S. brands, but their interiors seem to be made with a lot of cheap plastic, unlike the Avalon. My car has 155,000 miles on it and I plan on keeping it until it croaks.
We have considered buying a used Avalon instead of a new car when we need a replacement.
Josman RodriguezCincinnati Vehicle:Volkswagen Jetta
Whenever possible, I like to buy German cars, for the best performance, or Japanese cars, for lower maintenance costs.
I don't like to drive American cars because I am afraid that they will need to be fixed or repaired all the time. I perceive poor quality from the Big 3. Also, I don't drive a pickup or SUV because I am not a farmer. They really need them for their work. I am not married. Families may need bigger cars, although not really. And I like to save the environment using less gas. Besides being green, small cars are nicer on my wallet due to better gas consumption. If one day I ever need to buy a truck because of my job or other real reason, I would buy a Japanese one or wait for VW to introduce their smaller light trucks.
Compiled by Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY