Hip-hip-hooray! Oh, wait. No. Just when it looked like Detroit was turning the corner against international competition ... it turns out the Motor City figured a way to throw the game.

According to automotive analyst Sean McAlinden, Detroit automakers Ford (NYSE: F), Chrysler, and General Motors are finally within spitting distance of price competitiveness with their foreign rivals. As recently as 2007, we were still bemoaning the high employment and retiree health benefit costs that added $1,400 to the price of an average U.S. automobile, making them hopelessly uncompetitive with Toyota (NYSE: TM) and Honda (NYSE: HMC). Now, it seems the tide has turned.

Down on the line, hourly U.S. auto workers only cost $58 an hour (on average) today, versus $56 in Japan. And as more and more workers are hired at the union-blessed starting wage of $14 an hour, McAlinden foresees a day when Toyota could be paying its hourly workers as much as $10 an hour more than GM does. And yet ...

















No sooner did Detroit achieve victory in the cost-cutting wars, than it turns out they've found a way to snatch defeat from its jaws. In recent years, the hardworking union autoworker has gritted his teeth, tightened his belt, and agreed to the cuts necessary to compete with the Japanese. But as the chart above shows, there's still one category of U.S. automaker employee that costs way more than his foreign counterpart.

On average, a salaried U.S. employee costs 50% more in pay and benefits. But seeing as salaried employees include the white collar types at fault for driving Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy, it behooves us to ask -- are they really 50% better?

I suspect not.

Take the Foolish Rorschach test. Do you see something different in today's chart? Tell us about it below.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no interest, short or long, in any company named above. Rich is not a licensed economist, but he plays one on the Web. Check out his latest stock recommendations on Motley Fool CAPS. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.