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'Out of a Job Yet? Keep buying foreign!'

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Driving in suburban Detroit a few months back, Tracy Miller, the daughter and granddaughter of autoworkers for domestic companies, grew increasingly angry at all the foreign cars she saw on the road.


On impulse, she took a tablet of paper and scribbled "Buy American -- Support our Economy." She began flashing the sign to drivers of foreign cars.

Once, stopped at a light, the driver of a foreign car rolled down his window and yelled that in America he had the right to buy whatever he wanted. Miller, 39, of Warren and a mother of two, shot back, "If people continue to buy foreign cars, this won't be America for long."

"Buy American" is a revived sentiment these days in Michigan, particularly after lawmakers from states where foreign automakers have operations opposed loans to Detroit automakers. But it's not a simple matter.



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A lot of the problem is the FUD about American cars that started slow in the 1970's and became generally accepted by the 1990s. Remember "Get your hands on a Toyota, you'll never let go!" The other side of that is that American cars are troublesome and irritating. GM isn't entirely innocent, as those of us who remember their TV spot "Reliability" showing a woman in a parking place spinning the engine, which never caught or started, from the 1970's. By the 1980's most people believed that America cars were designed to last about 80,000 miles. In the 1980s I knew someone with a Datsun with a straight 6 that he drove 300,000 miles that he thought of donating to GM to tell them how it was done. In 2004 I had someone who is nationally prominent and who has been shown in spots on TV news networks for analysis ask me if "all that stuff" on my Cadillac was still working; he did believe me but he didn't expect that yes, everything was still working. His family drives Toyotas.

Another issue is the finishing process used in domestic cars. Little things that can be fixed easily at the dealer are left to be fixed that way. That isn't as cost-effective for imports because of parts supply costs so none of them do things that way. JD Power and Associates counts these things as Manufacturing Defects; my car had three: the center A/C vent broke during installation and was marked by QC but left for the dealer, the windshield molding was not cemented on the right side but was left for the dealer, and the weatherstripping anchors were not bayoneted into the door frame at one point on the driver's side; as a result my exceptionally reliable car was rated "worse than average" by JD Powers.

There seems to be an unspoken culture among import owners not to talk about problems that their cars have. BMW people never tell about their 7 series being at the dealer for weeks for diagnosis that would take an hour or two at a GM dealer, and Toyota people never tell about their engine going down because of a designed-in sludge problem. Maintenance costs that exceed lease or car payments after a few years keep most of off the road after they are five or six years old, but you never year a Mercedes owner tell why he decided to trade -- for another Mercedes.

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