Add in booming sales of expensive pickup trucks, and you get record high prices.
But those conditions could soon change. Although sales are expected to keep rising, automakers say the next wave of buyers who replace older cars will be more cost-conscious, shunning expensive radios and cushy seats to reduce payments. Ford is starting to see that trend in pickup trucks, and is adding a lower-priced model to its top-selling F-Series line.
Most car buyers shop based on expectations for a monthly payment, with the average running around $450, said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst with the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. Since bank interest rates run as low as 2 percent and automakers offer no-interest financing, buyers now have a choice between a lower payment or a nicer car. Unlike rising mortgage rates, shorter-term auto interest rates have remained fairly stable.
"If you can keep your payment the same and get more car, most consumers in the U.S. just get more car," said Toprak, who calculated the record average prices.
The average selling price, he said, went up about $1,400, or 4.5 percent, in the past two years, far faster than normal.
The result is a dream scenario for automakers and car dealers: People are paying record high prices just as demand returns to levels not seen since the Great Recession.
It's also a dream for people like Zachary Bier, a 26-year-old engineer and sales representative in New York City who just leased a $52,000 BMW 335i to replace a 3-Series with an expiring lease. He set out to match his old $650-per-month payment with hopes of getting more features.
For the same payment, he got metallic black paint, upgraded leather seats with red trim and stitching, Bluetooth technology to link his phone to the car, a heads-up display that projects his navigation system and other data onto the windshield, and electronic blind-spot detectors, he said.
"I guess I was surprised based on the sticker price that this car has so much more," he said. "For everything that comes on this, I feel like it's a better car."
Those who buy instead of lease also get more because low interest rates can bring lower payments. For instance, a loaded-out Ford Fusion with the Titanium package, including heated leather seats, premium audio system and 18-inch polished aluminum wheels, has a sticker price around $31,000.
With zero-percent financing from an automaker's loan company, borrowing $31,000 over five years would cost $516 per month. But if interest rates rise to say 5 percent, the payment jumps to $585. That could cause buyers to cut features to keep the price down.
Scott Fink, CEO of a small chain of Hyundai, Mazda and Chevrolet dealers in Florida's Tampa Bay area, said his Hyundai dealership in New Port Richey, Fla., sold a record 700 new cars in August. But Fink worries that incomes aren't rising fast enough to keep pace with price growth. Government statistics show personal income rose only 1 percent in the past two years, less than a quarter of the auto price growth.
And Fink fears that eventually the Federal Reserve will ease out of buying bonds, allowing interest rates to rise. Long-term mortgage rates already are up more than a full percentage point since May. So far, though, auto loan rates haven't been affected much, but Fink worries they will go up.
"We know we're a half a point or a point away from seeing a drop in sales," he said. "Every time they raise rates, it takes people out of the market."
Many in the business think prices will moderate some because people who kept their cars through the recession and now need to replace them won't load up on options.