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Leasing hits record high in fourth quarter

As auto sales continue climbing to record highs, American consumers are likewise setting a record when it comes to how they're paying for their new vehicles.

Leasing, often for a term of three years, hit a record high in the U.S. during the fourth quarter, with almost 30 percent of all new vehicles bought in showrooms being financed through a lease.

Couple buying a new car and signing the contract
Andres S | Getty Images
Couple buying a new car and signing the contract

Experian Automotive, which tracks financing for new and used vehicles, said Thursday that 28.87 percent of all new vehicles sold in the fourth quarter were leased. That compares with 25.11 percent in the prior-year quarter, as Americans look to drive down their monthly payments amid higher average transaction prices.

"I'm a little surprised leasing has grown to the level where it's at. Just five years ago, leasing was just 20 percent of the market," said Melinda Zabritski, a senior director at Experian Automotive. "Clearly this is what many consumers want for a variety of reasons."

The biggest factor driving the popularity of leasing is the lower monthly payment compared to a traditional auto loan. In the fourth quarter, the average monthly payment for a leased new vehicle was $412. That compares to the average monthly payment for an auto loan, which was $493, according to Experian.

In both cases, those payments were up slightly compared to figures reported by Experian for the prior-year quarter. The total amount financed hit a record $29,551 during the fourth quarter, marking an increase of more than $1,000 compared with the same period in 2014.

Experian said the average auto loan now stretches to a term of five years and seven months. The report also shows continued growth in sales to those with subprime and deep subprime credit ratings. Experian said loans to consumers with those credit records were up 9.3 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively.

In a separate report last month, Zabritski said the growth in subprime and deep subprime loans were "worth keeping an eye on," but lenders are so far managing the risk.

Zabritski said it's possible that America's appetite to lease a new car or truck will continue. However, the market will soon be pressured by a wave of 3-year-old vehicles coming off lease. Because vehicles of this age are often in good shape and have fewer than 40,000 miles, they could entice some drivers to consider buying used instead of leasing a new model.

"Leasing will stay strong, but we could be hitting the limit," she said.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.