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What is an American car, anyway?

These days, a Toyota is as likely to be made here as a Ford. So what does it mean to be an 'American car?'

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Even as distinctions like "American car," "European car" and "Japanese car" become increasingly meaningless in any real sense, they are becoming important as a sort of marketing short-hand.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser, for example, is built in Mexico by a company, DaimlerChrysler, that's based in Germany. But most consumers see it as an American car.

It's not just because it's built by Chrysler, part of the traditional American Big Three. It's also because of the Cruiser's design. After all, could Toyota build a car that looks like that?

In fact cars from DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, have become all the more overtly "American" in their design since the company headquarters shifted from Michigan to Stuttgart after the merger with Daimler-Benz.

Chryslers have sprouted more chrome and Dodges have grown more muscular.

Ford Motor Co.'s is also playing up the company's American roots in designs for its Ford and Lincoln cars while marketing their "Bold Moves" and "American luxury."

But what makes a car "American" as distinct from a more European or Asian design?

"It gets at the soul, it's an emotional thing as much as anything else," said Ed Welburn, head of design for General Motors.

Peter Horbury, who is responsible for design for all three of Ford's U.S. brands, is a native of England who was formerly responsible for design at Ford's Swedish Volvo brand.

Often, Horbury said, it takes an outsider to see what makes one nation's culture different from others.

"I have one word to say about America, and that's 'optimism'," said Horbury. "It's the most optimistic country in the world and it was born that way."

America's cultural character is outgoing and frank, he said, an attribute that can be reflected in cars.

Concept cars like the Ford 427 - aspects of which are found in the Ford Fusion sedan - show off the brash style that, Horbury says, marks uniquely American auto design.

"The outgoing character I see in Americans is what I see in their cars," he said.

For Dodge, that means a big grill, a way to advertise the big engine behind it.

For Dodge's sister-brand, Chrysler, it means lots of chrome, something that points to a resurgent interest in what is now called "bling."

"[American car companies] certainly have a history of vehicles that were very chrome-oriented," said Sam Locricchio, a spokesman for Chrysler Group design.

In creating a new look for Ford's Lincoln brand, designers have strived for a more subtle expression of that outgoing style.

"Going back to the '61 Continental, it had very little excess on it," said Horbury.

That car, now considered an icon of American automotive design, stood out in its day because it contrasted so starkly with sparkly Cadillacs.

For its part, Cadillac's sharp edges of today are a modern rendition of the fins and crisp lines for which Cadillac was famous decades ago, said GM's Welburn.

Meanwhile, chrome is again reasserting itself in General Motor's Buick and Chevrolet brands, as well.

In the end, carmakers are hoping that playing up, rather than toning down, their American cultural roots can give them an attraction that Asian and European carmakers can't touch.

Gallery: American Car Designexternal link

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