If there's a silver lining in the weak U.S. auto market, this may be it: Anemic new-car sales will mean short supplies of used cars in two or three years. That has made it possible for automakers to return to leasing in a big way -- with little fear that a glut of returns in 2012 or 2013 will hammer residuals and damage brand images.
Sure enough, leasing activity has begun to soar in recent months.
Leasing climbed to 21.1 percent of U.S. sales through September, compared with 16.6 percent for all of 2009, according to Edmunds.com. And although leasing did fall sharply last year as credit dried up, this year's level not only tops 2009; it is the highest in several years.
"A lot less sales now is a lot less used cars later," Don Esmond, Toyota Motor Sales' senior vice president of automotive operations, said last week in Detroit. "Our arithmetic says leasing is a good deal. It's a good bet that resale values will be a little better later on."
Automakers have jumped in with both feet, offering bigger lease subsidies, lower interest rates for customers and shorter lease terms to get vehicles back sooner, Edmunds.com data show.
All major manufacturers have boosted leasing in 2010. For Toyota Motor Sales, American Honda and Nissan North America, leasing accounted for at least a quarter of all volume through September.
General Motors Co., Chrysler Group and Hyundai-Kia Automotive also have increased leasing sharply this year. For each, leasing accounted for 11 percent of total new-vehicle transactions through September, compared with about 3 percent over the same period last year.
Ford Motor Co. shows the smallest increase this year, to 13 percent of sales, from 11 percent. But dealers say Ford is preparing a fall leasing promotion at least in some regions.