If you’re like me, you’ve grown up seeing the occasional U.S. government vehicle — always easily identifiable with its distinctive license plates — and noting that in nearly all cases, it was a boring white base-model American-made car, and often something really terrible like a Chevy Cavalier or an old Ford E-Series van.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was driving through Arches National Park last week, and I caught a glimpse of this: a not-American Kia Sorento, painted a not-a-usual-government-color gray, wearing U.S. government plates registered to the Department of the Interior (denoted by an "I" at the beginning). Has the government gotten more stylish?! Have they started reading Autotrader’s car reviews?!
As it turns out, the Kia Sorento is within the realm of the vehicles that can be purchased by the U.S. government. Under the Buy American Act of 1933, the government must purchase U.S.-made goods in most circumstances, unless they can find foreign-made goods dramatically cheaper. Since it’s built in West Point, Georgia, the Kia Sorento is certainly "American-made," allowing the government to buy the Sorento and still comply with the law.
Interestingly, I suspect the "Buy American Act" actually restricts the government from purchasing some vehicles made by American brands, as they’re built in foreign countries. For example, the Dodge Journey — probably the cheapest vehicle in the "Kia Sorento" segment — is manufactured in Mexico, meaning the government isn’t allowed to buy it. A base-level Sorento is among the cheapest other options, which probably drove the government’s ultimate purchase decision.
This isn’t the first foreign car I’ve seen with a U.S. government license plate. Back when I lived in Georgia, I’d occasionally see a Hyundai Sonata sporting a plate registered to the general Governmental Services Administration (GSA) motor pool, something I attributed to the fact that those cars are built in Georgia. But apparently those Sonatas aren’t alone, and Georgia isn’t unique. I’ve still never seen a U.S. government license plate on a Japanese car, or anything from Europe — but if it’s built in America and relatively cheap, I suppose it’s possible. Find a Kia Sorento for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.