In addition, the downsized Detroit Big 3 have lowered their breakeven points since the recession. They're not as highly motivated to get units out the door by subventing leases as they were before restructuring.
A single quarter of lower lease penetration in the fourth quarter of 2011 doesn't make a trend. But the rate of increase in leasing, has been diminishing ever since the third quarter of 2010, Power Information Network data show.
Lease penetration was 19.5 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 20.2 percent a year earlier, PIN said. Lease share of new-vehicle retail sales bottomed out at 10.3 percent in the third quarter of 2009.
Experian Automotive, using a different methodology, said lease penetration was 23.1 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 23.7 percent a year ago. For all of 2011, Experian Automotive said, the average lease penetration was 23.7 percent, up only a fraction from 23.5 percent in 2010.
Zabritski said that leasing is back to around the same level it was before the credit freeze and the recession. Maybe it's too much to expect leasing to keep growing beyond that level, she said.
"This tends to be about where it had been, going back as far as 2006, before we had all these troubles,'' she said.
Still, there are some reasons for optimism.
The growth in leasing has enjoyed a tailwind in the form of higher used-car prices. Used-car prices have stopped increasing like they did in the past couple of years, but they are still at a high level in historical terms.
Data from ADESA Auctions Inc. show that the average wholesale used-vehicle price at auction was $9,878 in December 2011. That was a 9.5 percent increase from December 2008 but only 0.5 percent increase from December 2010.
Higher used-car prices mean auto lenders are less likely to lose money on lease returns. The used-car shortage that's supporting used-car prices is expected to persist at least through this year.
Leasing also remains high for luxury import captives such as Mercedes-Benz Financial, at 64 percent leasing in the fourth quarter; or BMW Financial Services, at 62 percent leasing, according to Experian.
Finally, several automakers have expressed an interest in higher lease penetration. GM bought the former AmeriCredit in October 2010 in part to get closer to the industry average in leasing. The company said it is unlikely to reach industry average because it sells a high percentage of trucks, an area in which leasing is less popular.
GM reported its U.S. lease penetration was 11.1 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 12.9 percent a year ago. For all of 2011, GM's lease penetration was 13.2 percent, up from 9 percent in 2010, spokesman Jim Cain says.
According to Experian Automotive, captives for the three biggest Japanese brands had above-average lease share in the fourth quarter, with Toyota Financial Services at 30.6 percent, American Honda Finance at 40.8 percent and Nissan-Infiniti Financial Services at 45.8 percent. Those figures include their respective luxury brands.
Taking advantage of improved residual values, Hyundai Capital America, which serves both Hyundai and Kia brands, had a 53 percent lease share in the fourth quarter, according to Experian. VW Credit had a 53.7 percent lease share.
However, leasing has become pretty much the domain of the captive finance companies as banks stay away, J.D. Power's Cuevas said.
The manufacturers want "to shorten trade cycles and length of ownership," he said, adding: "Leasing definitely does that for the manufacturer. There's also a higher propensity for that customer to purchase a similar-make vehicle if they come from a lease."
Leasing is likely to grow more rapidly if and when the manufacturers pour enough incentives into it to make that happen. For the most part, that doesn't seem to be the case, Cuevas said.
He added: "A huge factor in lease vs. purchase is the lease offer itself."