By JIM PARKER

The Post and Courier

Back in the day, customers were driving vehicles off the lots at attractive payments, and they didn’t even own the cars.

In those untold thousands of cases, shoppers were leasing sports cars, luxury sedans, SUVs and pickups. Getting a deal upfront, they could cruise around for three years or so and then turn the vehicle back in to the auto store.

Having gone through decades of ebbs and flows, car leasing became a heady business in the boisterous economy of the early to mid 2000s. Cash-flush consumers were in a position to haggle on monthly payments, and salespeople were eager to hammer out deals.

Then came the national economic downturn starting in 2007. Sales and leases began to dry up as now-penny-pinching motorists held onto their vehicles longer. New cars were hardest hit, while more affordable pre-owned vehicles saw prices jump.

Leases and sales hit bottom in 2009 and lingered the next year. Since then, the automotive industry has gained traction as the country’s financial outlook has brightened somewhat. Car and truck sales, not unexpectedly, have accelerated. And interest in vehicle leases is building.

The improving lease outlook motivated one online “marketplace” to determine whether shoppers are nabbing lease deals these days as they did a half-dozen years earlier or are they seeing rates more in line with the pricey pre-owned-vehicle bazaar.

“Car lease deals are more plentiful today compared with just a few years ago,” Cincinnati-based Swapalease.com says. The question is whether recent pricing matches pre-recession days.

Earlier this month, the car lease venture probed monthly payment figures from 2006 and lined them up with numbers from 2012.

According to the Internet venture, “Payments on many models have increased with a few surprising declines.”

Swapalease.com took a look at three popular model categories, passenger cars, luxury vehicles and trucks.

The sedan that’s upped its lease prices the most from 2006 to last year is the Buick Lacrosse. Monthly payments seven years ago were $272; they soared 61 percent to $438 a month as of last year.

“The Lacrosse has become a more popular vehicle in the Swapalease.com marketplace, with increased levels of listings and takeover demand,” it says.

Likewise but not as dramatically, monthly lease prices climbed 9.4 percent on the Honda Accord, grew 7.3 percent on the Nissan Altima and edged up 1.8 percent with the Chevrolet Malibu. The Ford Fusion’s lease payments dropped 9.2 percent. But the vehicle with the sharpest decline was the Toyota Camry, off by more than a quarter.

“Conversely, the Camry monthly price has fallen 27.7 percent from 2006 to 2012, demonstrating the carmaker’s aggressiveness in promoting lease deals,” Swapalease.com said.

Luxury vehicles were another group where the majority of popular cars list steeper lease prices today but a handful report lower payments than six years earlier.

For the BMW 3 Series, the price went to $614 a month in 2012 from $543 in 2006.

“Arguably the most popular vehicle on the Swapalease.com marketplace, the BMW 3 Series’ monthly payment increased 13.1 percent between 2006 and 2012,” the auto lease marketplace from Ohio noted.

Close behind was the Infiniti FX35, with a 12.6 percent boost in lease prices; the Mercedes Benz C Class with a 7.6 percent increase and the Audi A4 up 7.5 percent. Deals are out there, though, as the Cadillac CTS saw a 4.6 percent decline. The biggest drop, according to Swapalease.com, was by a “luxury category competitor, the Lexus IS 250.” Monthly payments fell 9.2 percent during the six-year time frame, the online company said.

Lease price changes varied widely among truck brands. “Among today’s most popular truck models, the Chevy Tahoe’s monthly lease payment increased the most between 2006 and 2012 at 42.1 percent,” Swapalease.com pointed out. The monthly payment scaled to $608 in 2012 from $428 six years before.

Other big gainers were the Chevrolet Silverado, up 19.1 percent in lease price; and the Ford F-150, up 14.3 percent, while the Toyota Tacoma increased 4.9 percent.

Dealmakers included the Jeep Grand Cherokee, with a 6.3 percent dip; and the Ford Explorer, down 12.6 percent.

Monthly lease payments as listed on the Swapalease.com marketplace are the actual prices drivers pay according to their lease contracts, the company said.

Swapalease.com describes itself as the world’s largest automotive lease marketplace and the pioneer in facilitating lease transfers online. For more information, call 866-SWAPNOW (792-7669) or visit www.swapalease.com.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.

•Change in Monthly Lease Payment, Selected Popular Models•

Chevrolet Malibu, passenger car: 2012 - $287/mth; 2006 - $282/mth

Ford Fusion, passenger car: 2012 - $297; 2006 - $327

Nissan Altima, passenger car: 2012 - $309; 2006 - $288

Toyota Camry, passenger car: 2012 - $326; 2006 - $451

Honda, passenger car: 2012 - $326; 2006 - $298

Toyota Tacoma, truck: 2012 - $388; 2006 - $370

Buick Lacrosse, passenger car: 2012 - $438; 2006 - $272

Chevrolet Silverado, truck: 2012 - $473; 2006 - $397

Jeep Grand Cherokee, truck: 2012 - $475; 2006 - $507

Cadillac CTS, luxury vehicle: 2012 - $482; 2006 - $505

Lexus IS250, luxury vehicle: 2012 - $483; 2006 - $532

Ford Explorer, truck: 2012 - $493; 2006 - $564

Ford F-150, truck: 2012 - $512; 2006 - $448

Mercedes-Benz C Class, luxury vehicle: 2012 - $523; 2006 - $486

Audi A4, luxury vehicle: 2012 -$529; 2006 - $492

Chevrolet Tahoe, truck: 2012 - $608; 2006 - $428

BMW 3 Series, luxury vehcile: 2012 - $614; 2006 - $543

Infiniti FX35, luxury vehicle: 2012 - $644; 2006 - $572.

Source: Swapalease.com