What about low interest rates for high mpg?

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LAS VEGAS -- Imagine if buying a vehicle that gets extremely good fuel economy meant getting a lower interest rate on a loan.

Lenders consider a lot of factors when granting consumers retail vehicle loans. But might lenders smile on buyers of highly fuel efficient vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt or Toyota Prius sedans?

The thought is that a consumer of a high-MPG vehicle would, theoretically, be spending considerably less on gasoline. Therefore that consumer could repay a car loan faster or even afford a slightly higher loan amount than they might otherwise.

It’s an idea that some dealers are asking and some in the lending community are pondering at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.

“We’re not seeing it happen quite yet,” said Melinda Zabritski, director of Automotive Credit at Experian Automotive. “It’s certainly going to be one of the topics I’m going to talk to lenders about it though -- if they’ll take mileage into account when writing their rate cards.”

The answer might depend on federal regulations. The government could say no.

And there are the unpredictable variables to consider such as the risk that gasoline prices would fluctuate. According to a report by ABC News, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, which tracks fuel prices, projects that by Memorial Day the national average will be $3.86 to $4.13 per gallon. DeHaan said prices in 2012 could set records. That means drivers could spend $200 to $300 more for gasoline this year -- unless they buy an extremely fuel efficient vehicle.

I ran into Ally Financial President Bill Muir here and asked his thoughts on the idea of lending at more favorable rates for those who buy vehicles with high MPG ratings.

Muir says it’s unlikely Ally would start considering a vehicle’s fuel economy in its retail loan interest rates. Muir says fuel efficiency is already inadvertently rolled into the equation through residual values.

He noted that in 2008 gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon. Large SUVs became harder for people to afford. Thus, the residual values on many large SUVs plummeted because the used vehicle buyer wanted to pay less for them.

“Mileage per gallon factors into affordability and factors into the residual of the vehicles,” Muir said. “We tend to look at it as, what do we think is the residual value that makes it desirable or not as a loan. So it all factors into it already.”

Fair enough. But lenders are always looking for creative ways to market to new business, and this might be one of them.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter

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