5 of the best car lease deals you can get now

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    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.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.