Flood of off-lease used cars push prices down, upend market

DETROIT (AP) — In 2014, Infiniti leased more than 28,000 Q50 luxury sedans for as little as $329 per month in a growing U.S. market. The leases accounted for more than three-quarters of Q50 sales.

Now they’re coming back to haunt the automaker.

Like many companies that juiced sales with sweet leases during the past few years, Nissan’s luxury brand now faces a hefty supply of nice, low-mileage used cars at a time when most people want SUVs. For the U.S. auto industry, about 3.5 million vehicles will come off lease this year, after 3 million returned last year, according to Automotive Lease Guide. These are huge numbers when you consider that leasing all but came to a halt during the Great Recession about a decade ago.

The numbers signal three shifts in the market:

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— Lease deals are starting to wane as many companies cut back to control the used car supply.

— You can get a great late-model used car for a bargain price.

— Competition from used cars likely will push down the price of new ones.

Since the lightly used cars are entering a market that favors trucks and SUVs, the prices will fall, says Jim Lentz, Toyota’s CEO in North America. “It’s more difficult to get rid of them,” he says. “You’re going to have very attractive certified used passenger car payments relative to new passenger cars.”

Three years ago, automakers leased about 3.3 million vehicles, just over 23 percent of U.S. sales to individual buyers. The business was good. Cars were holding their values and automakers expected to sell them at a tidy profit when leases ended in two or three years. Cars were still popular, making up half of the nation’s sales.

Leasing continued to grow, hitting a record of over 30 percent of sales earlier this year. Meanwhile, buyer tastes shifted to SUVs and demand for cars faded. Car sales are now about 38 percent of the market. As a result,…

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