5 of the best car lease deals you can get now

With U.S. auto sales down almost five percent from a year ago, manufacturers are ramping up the incentives to move cars off the lot. That translates to some of the best lease deals seen in a while, with monthly payments starting just below $150.

Leasing isn't for everyone. On a strictly financial basis, the best deal is to buy the car and keep it as long as you can. But if you like to change cars every few years, if you take good care of your vehicle and if you don't generally drive long distances, leasing can be a good deal. On the other hand, if you return the car in poor condition at lease-end or you exceed the mileage allowed in your lease, you can wind up with costly charges that you may not expect.

Lease payments are generally lower than loan payments for buying the same car. That's because you're financing only the depreciation for the time you drive the car -- not its total value. In other words, you're paying for the difference between the car's initial value and the estimated value when the lease is over, plus interest.

Leases are always available. But the best deals come when manufacturers subsidize them, usually by raising the so-called residual value or estimate of the value at lease-end. But you need to pay attention not only to the monthly payments, but also to the total cost of the lease. To get that, multiply the payment amount by the length of the lease (often 36 months). Then add the down payment required when you sign the lease.

Let's have a closer look at five of the best lease deals now available as screened by U.S. News. They are listed in order of their monthly payments, lowest first. These are national deals, but in some regions or individual states, dealers may be setting their own lease offers.

Buick Encore

This popular subcompact SUV is available for $149 a month for 24 months. When you add in the substantial $3,729 due at signing, that is a total lease cost of $7,305. To buy this vehicle would cost at least $22,900. But of course then you could keep it beyond the two-year duration of the lease.

The Encore is praised by test drivers for its comfortable interior and generous list of standard features. The 2017 model comes with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for easy connection to your smart phone. The base four-cylinder engine is rated for 27 MPG in city driving and 33 on the highway.

Honda Civic

Often ranked by reviewers as the best compact car, the Civic is available for $149 a month for 36 months, with $3,299 due at signing. That is a total lease cost of $8,663. Buying a Civic would cost at least $18,740.

Test drivers praise the 2017 Civic for a smooth ride and crisp handling. And they say the car has roomy seats and ample room for cargo. The Civic also shows up strongly on fuel economy, with its four-cylinder engine rated at 32 MPG in city driving, 42 highway.

Toyota Camry

The Camry, which often tops sales among sedans, is available for $159 a month for 36 months, with $1,999 due at signing. That is a total lease cost of $7,723. Buying a Camry would cost at least $24,070.

Camry, while rarely exciting, is a comfortable family car. Test drivers at U.S. News rank it No. 1 among midsize sedans, citing not only its comfortable and spacious cabin but its long record of reliability. The Camry's standard four-cylinder engine is rated for 24 MPG city, 33 highway, while an optional V-6 is rated 21 city, 30 highway.

Hyundai Elantra

The Hyundai Elantra is available for $169 a month for 36 months, with $1,999 due at signing. However, in a special promotion, you get $500 cash back. Including that rebate, that is a total lease cost of $7,583. Buying a new Elantra would cost you at least $17,150. (One argument for buying instead of leasing a Hyundai is the brand's 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.)

Test drivers liked the Elantra's roomy interior and comfortable seats, as well as easy-to-use tech features. The Elantra also ranks well on fuel economy. Its four-cylinder turbocharged engine is rated for 32 MPG city, 40 highway.

Acura ILX

Luxury brands as well as mainstream automakers are offering lease deals. The ILX is available for $219 a month for 36 months, plus $2,499 due at signing. The base price for buying an ILX is $27,990 -- relatively low for a luxury model.

A small car, the ILX can nonetheless seat five. And it beats many luxury rivals in fuel economy, with its four-cylinder engine rated for 25 MPG in city driving, 35 on the highway.