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IRVINE, Calif. — While the industry's lease penetration rates haven't been at their typical 20- to 22-percent levels and might not necessarily return to the "high-flying days," Kelley Blue Book's James Bell suggested that smart's announcement that it is entering the leasing market could be indicative of some good signs.

Bell, executive market analyst for Kbb.com, was offering his observations on last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He said at the auto show, the atmosphere reflected "a sense of normalcy" and a "back to business" approach.

Looking at what could be pivotal in terms of sales volume expectations for 2010, Bell pointed out that while interest rates are trending low (a healthy sign), there is still some tightness in credit.

"And these two factors, plus the expected lower overall residuals as projected by Kelley Blue Book, are keeping leasing from its normal place as the 20-22 percent of all automotive transactions," Bell shared. "While I do not espouse a return to the high-flying days of the recent past, this financing option has been a powerful way to keep the metal moving, especially for the luxury manufacturers."

He went on to add that a fundamental of leasing is that it essentially provides consumers with a way to drive models that they might not otherwise have been able to afford to purchase via traditional financing. 

"Don't forget that a basic tenet of leasing is that it allows you to drive a more expensive vehicle than you can afford to purchase," Bell said.

"So, the word that smart USA is getting into the leasing game tells us two things: a) the 'back to business' mentality previously mentioned is not just a dream, and b) the smart brand has taken stock of its situation and made a great move," he continued.

And although "the bottom has since dropped" after the smart fortwo's strong debut in its first year in the U.S., there is some potentially good news for the vehicle.

Bell suggested "it would make a perfect second or third vehicle in many American homes, and this new leasing option should help crack open many more garage doors. 

"And that is a good sign for all of us," he added.