auto

Auto leasing making a comeback

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Highlights
  • Car leases fell to about 10 percent of retail auto sales in Q3 2009.
  • GM and Chrysler all but abandoned leasing last summer.
  • Surprisingly, GMAC will now finance most Chrysler-product leases.

Auto leasing is showing signs of making a comeback after bottoming out over the last 18 months.

Earlier this decade -- when U.S. auto sales regularly topped 16 million units a year -- leasing accounted for as much as 30 percent of the market in some months. As recently as the first quarter of 2008 -- before the worst of the latest recession hit -- auto leasing represented 22 percent of the market, according to the Power Information Network, or PIN.

Today, U.S. auto sales are barely topping 10 million units a year -- the lowest per capita since World War II -- and PIN data show auto leasing fell to a low of about 10 percent of U.S. retail auto sales in the third quarter of 2009.

But the latest data show car leasing rebounded to about 16 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009.

What happened?

In a lease, the customer, in effect, borrows the difference between the price of the car and the finance company's estimate of how much the car will be worth at the end of the lease -- the residual value.

At lease end, the customer can buy the car but the vast majority turns them back in to the auto finance company, which then auctions them off to auto dealers. If the car is worth less than the finance company thought it would be, the lender loses money.

When U.S. gas prices spiked at more than $4 per gallon in the summer of 2008, demand for new cars and trucks fell, credit dried up and used car values fell -- especially for gas-guzzling trucks. Companies financing leases lost billions of dollars. Chrysler Financial quit leasing entirely and for a time, GMAC all but abandoned leasing, too.

Leasing still an option

Leasing is an especially important selling tool for luxury import brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW and, to an extent, for domestic brands Cadillac and Lincoln. Leasing lowers your monthly payment.

Leasing higher-end models is still easy and while it's unlikely to regain the popularity it enjoyed before 2008, leasing more moderate-priced models appears to have bottomed and is on a mild upswing.

Jack Ferry, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz Financial, says his company stuck with leasing, and Margaret Mellott, a Ford Credit spokeswoman, says, "Ford Credit has continued to make leasing available throughout the recession, unlike some other finance providers."

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Tom Henderson, a GM spokesman, says GM expects to rebuild leasing to about 10 percent of U.S. sales. Leasing is expected to be higher for some models and for the Cadillac brand, he says. Before 2008 leasing typically accounted for 20 percent to 25 percent of GM's U.S. sales.

Here are quick profiles of the Big Three domestic automakers' recent history with regard to auto leases.

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