SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Experian Automotive announced that the automotive loan market showed continued improvement, with interest rates for new- and used-vehicle loans at their lowest levels since 2008.

In the fourth quarter 2011, average credit scores for new- and used-vehicle loans dropped, the percentage of loans to customers with nonprime, subprime or deep subprime credit scores increased, and lenders increased their willingness to make loans between six and seven years long, according to Experian.

"The improved automotive lending market is good news for consumers in the market to buy a vehicle," said Melinda Zabritski, director of automotive lending at Experian Automotive. "The confluence of low interest rates, longer loan terms and an increase in loans outside of prime provide a great opportunity for more people to find a vehicle that suits their needs."

Consumers continued to do a better job of repaying loans in the end-of-year quarter as loan delinquencies fell. The 30-day delinquency rate fell 6.57 percent from the year-ago quarter to 2.79 percent. The 60-day delinquency rate also fell by 9.51 percent from 0.79 percent in the fourth quarter 2010 to 0.72 percent in the last quarter of 2011.

Another positive sign for the lending market is that the overall dollar volume of loans at risk dropped to $18.5 billion, a $1.862 billion drop from the fourth quarter 2010. Meanwhile, the total volume of open loans rose by $23.9 billion in the fourth quarter last year to $658 billion.

"Lenders are clearly on much more solid ground than they were two or three years ago," Zabritski said. "With delinquencies and total dollar volume at risk down, lenders have been able to adopt more aggressive strategies. This tends to benefit everyone, from lenders to automotive retailers to the end consumer. With more lenders aggressively competing for business, it's a great time for consumers to buy or finance a vehicle."

Average interest rates for new-vehicle loans fell to 4.52 percent from the year-ago quarter. Average interest rates for used vehicle loans fell also to 8.68 percent from 8.71 percent in the fourth quarter 2010.

Average credit scores for new-vehicle loans dropped six points to 761, while average credit scores for used-vehicle loans dropped nine points to 670. New-vehicle loans to nonprime, subprime and deep subprime customers increased by 13.8 percent from a year ago.

Loans of 73 to 84 months accounted for 14.1 percent of all new-vehicle loans and 9.04 percent of all used-vehicle loans, up 47.1 percent and 41.1 percent from the fourth quarter 2010, respectively.

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