"That's something that we've been spinning our heads over for quite a bit," said Klaus Busse, 45, vice president for interior design at Jeep manufacturer Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
"We're walking a very fine line."
Getting the equation right never has been more important as FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne banks on record sales of Jeep Wranglers, Cherokees and Renegades to ignite an explosion of global growth.
Global Jeep sales surged to 1.02 million vehicles in 2014 from just 337,700 in the recession year of 2009. Outside North America, sales grew to 324,671 from 106,015 in that period, with key markets including China, Italy, Australia, Brazil, Germany and Japan.
Busse says Jeep is already a global brand with a "very strong American root." The key is tapping the American spirit the way brands such as Coca-Cola or Levi's jeans do, he said.
"We look at the American soul. The American dream has a lot of cachet around the world. I travel the globe every year, and wherever I go, people love America," Busse said this month at a Japan-market launch event for the Renegade outside Tokyo. "We don't go to the drawing board saying we're going to do a piece of American design. We're going to do a piece of American culture."
Ford Motor Co. was a forerunner in tweaking time-tested design to cast a wider global net -- with the Mustang no less.
The Mustang's sixth-generation overhaul for the 2015 model year targeted a world audience with a lower, wider and sleeker look. It still got the same bold shoulders and front end. But for global tastes, it also got an independent rear suspension, beefed-up brakes and paddle shifters.
That blend worked. But finding the balance isn't always easy.
"If American design can be construed as an asset, that may be a viable strategy. But ... it would appear that the car manufacturers are leaning more and more to global acceptance rather than global polarization," said John Manoogian, a professor of automotive design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer.
"There are certainly exceptions, but the trend appears to be fitting in rather than standing out," he said.