DETROIT -- Pickups are beginning to emulate luxury vehicles, with their exclusive-sounding model names, fancy features such as vented seats, and $50,000 price tags.
Here's another similarity: More customers are leasing them.
Last year, leases accounted for about 14 percent of U.S. retail light-duty pickup sales, up from less than 3 percent in 2010, according to J.D. Power. That's small compared with the luxury segment's lease penetration of nearly half of all sales and the industry average of more than 20 percent. But it represents a widening avenue to ownership for pickup buyers, who traditionally have been leery of wear-and-tear charges and mileage limits.
"It's becoming more of a tool to increase sales in a supercompetitive segment," IHS analyst Tom Libby says.
The growing popularity of pickup leasing carries both an upside and risk for automakers.
Leases are driving incremental sales of the Detroit 3's biggest moneymakers, helping to extend one of the U.S. light-truck market's strongest growth streaks in recent memory. They're also getting pickup owners into a lucrative buying cycle that brings them back to showrooms every three years.
But profitability is lower on leases generally than on purchases, even with stronger residuals that allow automakers to reduce lease subsidies. Leases also require automakers to gamble that those strong resale values will hold up in the face of rising gasoline prices or an economic downturn.
That was a losing bet back in 2008, when the slowing economy and spiraling fuel prices led to a drop of about 25 percent in resale prices of full-size pickups and SUVs, leaving automakers' captive-finance arms holding the bag. One analyst in 2008 estimated that Chrysler's finance unit was losing an average of $5,000 on every big truck it took back at the end of the lease term.