NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W ith German, Korean, and Japanese models widely available in the U.S. market, American automakers have been losing ground for many decades now. This is not a fact without bearing on political events: A former White House official believes that President Trump’s recent decision to remove troops from Germany is based at least in part on the idea that Germany has taken advantage of the United States by eating into its domestic automobile market.
At first glance, American car manufacturers seem to be doing quite well, contrary to President Trump’s impression of the matter. Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota are the top three car brands in the United States, followed by Honda and Jeep. Three of the five are American — Ford, Chevrolet, and Jeep. However, this American dominance is not uniform: Discounting top American truck models like the Ford F-150, the Chevy Silverado, and the Ram 1500 — by far the best-selling vehicles in the United States — the trend in favor of foreign automakers becomes much more apparent. Thirteen of the 18 top-selling SUVs in the United States are manufactured by foreign companies. For sedans, the imbalance is even more striking: Among American models, only the Chevrolet Malibu, Tesla Model 3, and Ford Fusion make it into the top-selling 13 sedans in the U.S. market. Of these, only the Malibu and Model 3 will be produced for the upcoming 2021 model year, with the Michigan-made Fusion facing the ax.
But it is among luxury sedans that matters are perhaps worst for American companies: In this category, Chrysler’s only model is its 300 — a car with plummeting sales and the reputation of being not quite luxurious. Ford’s Lincoln is completely discontinuing its sedans, moving to an all-SUV lineup for the 2021 model year. Tesla’s sedan offerings — the Model 3 and Model S — are exceptionally crafted and gaining in popularity; the trouble is, though the company’s charging-station infrastructure is growing, demand isn’t high enough (outside of high-fuel-tax California) for it to have convenient superchargers in too many places.
One company, however, is bucking the trend of underwhelming American combustion-engine luxury-sedan performance: Cadillac. This division of General Motors has not only maintained more of its former clout over the last half century than, say, Lincoln, but it has also enjoyed strong sales in China and is even attempting to go on the offensive against competitors BMW, Audi, and Mercedes by entering the European market. Additionally, Cadillac has begun to design electric vehicles, a move the company hopes will allow it to survive in the luxury market alongside Tesla et al. once the days of gasoline, pistons, and turbo engines are gone.
Recently, I had the chance to test-drive a couple of Cadillac sedans at Springfield Buick GMC Cadillac in my home state of Vermont. As I was walking over to one of the cars, the dealer accompanying me quipped: “Ah, you write for National Review. Then I’m guessing you’re one of those Gen Z-ers who doesn’t hate his country?” A memorable sendoff before I got behind the wheel. As for the drive itself — well, both of them — I have to admit that I was blown away. Now, full disclosure: I’ve just recently turned 19, and I haven’t had many opportunities to drive luxury sedans before. (In fact, none.) Still, there’s gotta be something objectively impressive about all the features in the CT4-V and CT5 cars I drove; we’re talking about authentic leather seats, a sleek and techy interior, a bold outward design, tons of safety features, performance brakes, noise-canceling technology, and a sick zero-to-60 time (in the V).
But I’m rambling. The main point of all this is that Caddies are pretty cool, even if they don’t sell quite as well as BMWs and Mercedes. And there’s no reason to think other American premium brands couldn’t have similar success were they actually to commit to designing quality sedans. But they aren’t, so they’re missing an opportunity not only to connect to a diminishing but loyal base of luxury-sedan buyers but to secure themselves against the possibility that oil prices will rise to the point where it’s no longer logical to buy gas-guzzling SUVs.
There’s also the question of tariffs and general trade policy. I want to dissociate myself somewhat from others who might write an article such as this one to advocate for trade protectionism. Indeed, none of what I have written is a dog whistle for protectionists and mercantilists. Basic economic theory on the specialization of labor teaches that, if we have any desire for economic advancement, we should eschew restrictive trade policies and avoid tariffs on foreign products — especially on ones from free nations such as Germany and Japan, upon whom it is not a dangerous thing to rely. Nevertheless, Chris Havey, the affable manager of the dealership I visited, made a great point: When the EU puts a 10 percent tariff on U.S.-made automobiles, it makes sense for us Americans to consider responding in kind even if we would ideally wish for all nations to reject protectionism.
In any case, as American consumers, we surely have the right to make the aesthetic — perhaps irrational — decision to voluntarily purchase the fruits of American design, ingenuity, and labor, whether they be those of Cadillac, Tesla, or Chevy. Not that we need to be No. 1 at every little thing. We’re on top where it counts: at providing freedoms firmly protected by an ingenious Constitution, at attracting talented immigrants, at winning Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals, and so much more. Still, why not see how far our exceptionalism can take us and use our consumer dollars to try to boost American sedans and SUVs, luxury and mass-produced alike, over their competitors? I mean, come on: a two-front victory over the Germans and Japanese is as American as apple pie.