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A worker inspect vehicles and work on the assembly line at Honda’s Alliston, Ont., plant.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

So you want to buy a Canadian car – or as Canadian a car as possible.

You will get no help from the five auto makers that assemble vehicles in Canada – all of them subsidiaries of foreign companies – because they refuse to reveal the amount of Canadian content in the vehicles they make.

The issue of content in automobiles has become a focal point of the North American free-trade agreement negotiations because of a demand by the Americans that a new deal require that all vehicles made in each of the three countries contain a minimum amount of U.S. content in order to earn duty-free status.

U.S. negotiators have not yet revealed what minimum percentage they are seeking, but their message was reinforced last week by a Commerce Department study saying that the U.S. value added in Canadian-made vehicles imported into the United States fell between 1995 and 2011. It dropped to 26.4 per cent last year from 34.9 in 1995, the study found.

Executives from Canada's auto parts sector vigorously disputed that conclusion during and after a meeting on NAFTA last week with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Auto makers in Canada and the industry groups to which their parent companies belong are silent, however, on how much Canadian content is in the vehicles they make in this country. They are silent even though they have urged the Canadian and U.S. governments to make sure that a new NAFTA contain no clauses requiring a specified amount of content from any of the three countries and maintain the status quo of 62.5 per cent as the rule of origin for North American content.

Disclosing the percentages of Canadian and U.S. content on average in their vehicles would help correct the misleading and incomplete data in the Commerce Department report, Canadian trade lawyer Larry Herman said.

If auto makers are so strongly opposed to a specific amount of U.S. content, they should be "more forthcoming with their data to show why it makes sense to keep it the same," added auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc.

The five auto companies with assembly plants in Canada, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., and Toyota Motor Corp., said in responses to Globe and Mail inquiries that their Canadian-made vehicles meet the current NAFTA rule of origin requiring 62.5 per cent North American content.

But the amount of Canadian or U.S. content in the vehicles is a closely guarded secret.

Dave Gardner, president of Honda Canada Inc., the Canadian sales arm of Japan-based Honda, said "our feeling is that maintaining the North American perspective, versus focusing on any one of the individual countries, is the salient one in the current environment."

The American Automobile Labeling Act shows that Civic coupes and CR-V all-wheel drive crossovers assembled at Honda's plant in Alliston, Ont., contain 70 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively, in combined Canadian and U.S. content, Mr. Gardner said, but he acknowledged that the requirements for that calculation are different from the rules used to measure NAFTA content.

A spokeswoman for Fiat Chrysler Canada said that company does not release Canadian content figures for proprietary reasons and "because of the complex nature of the issue."

A General Motors of Canada Co. spokesman said the information is "business confidential."

Public relations officials with two of the companies, Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc., also refused to say why they will not reveal the number.

With the five auto makers keeping the amount of their content from Canada a closely guarded secret, identifying which vehicle is the most Canadian is impossible.

A buyer can start with the 17 vehicles assembled in Canada, which can be considered more Canadian than the approximately 250 other vehicles sold here.

But there is no data that enables a buyer to distinguish whether a Chrysler Pacifica is more Canadian than a Ford Edge, Chevrolet Equinox, a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 or vehicles sold in Canada that originate in assembly plants in Michigan, Alabama, Kentucky or other states.

The amount of Canadian content in the average vehicle assembled in Canada was $4,105 last year, which represented 17.2 per cent of the overall parts content, according to numbers compiled by Mr. DesRosiers. That number has been as high as 25.6 per cent and as low as 13 per cent this decade, Mr. DesRosiers said, noting that it does not include assembly costs, which would increase the percentage of Canadian content.

His data show that U.S. parts content in Canadian-made vehicles fell to 53.3 per cent last year from 69.2 per cent in 2000, while the parts content from Mexico stood at 11.1 per cent last year.

One industry source who has deep knowledge of vehicle and parts manufacturing in Canada estimated that the overall Canadian content figure is between 20 per cent and 24 per cent.

Canadian content at plants operated by Honda and Toyota is likely higher, the source said, because they do more in-house manufacturing of parts, such as plastic-injection-moulded components, than the Canadian plants operated by the Detroit Three.

The American Automotive Policy Council, a U.S. industry lobby group for the Detroit-based auto makers, said in a submission to the U.S. government earlier this year that its members' vehicles made in Canada contain 60 per cent U.S. content while those made in Mexico have 40 per cent U.S. content.

"So every car exported from Canada and Mexico benefits the U.S. auto parts sector," the group said in its submission.

Trade figures also underscore how critical vehicle assembly in Canada is to the U.S. auto parts sector.

Canada runs a perpetual trade deficit in auto parts with the United States. That deficit rose to $13.04-billion last year, its highest level since 2003.

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