IRVINE, Calif. — Experian Consumer Direct recently discovered that the percentage of consumers opening new auto loans has declined 17.5 percent from 2001. However, the company also reported that the percentage of consumers at least 90 days late on a payment for their auto loan is down 4.1 percent.

According to Experian data, fewer consumers were opening new credit accounts from 2001 to 2006, down 16.9 percent, while overall late payments of 90 days or more increased by 12.6 percent during the same time frame.

As a part of Experian's National Score Index study, the company also found that the national average credit score was 675, down seven points from 2001 when it was 682.

The rate of consumers opening new accounts, including installment loans such as auto and student, in addition to revolving credit accounts such as bank and credit cards, has declined to 41 percent from 49.3 percent in 2001, according to executives.

Moreover, Experian pointed out that the rate at which consumers were 90 days or more late in payments increased from 39.6 percent in 2001 to 44.6 percent last year.

"The drop in the rate of consumers opening new accounts in 2006 may give the appearance that they are being more conservative with regard to using credit; however, this may not be the case when combined with other results from our study," explained Ty Taylor, president of Experian Consumer Direct.

"Although our data shows a drop in the rate of consumers opening bank credit card accounts, it also shows that their balances on other types of loans, such as installment loans, are increasing," Taylor continued.

Experian said that for its study, the company compared data from August 2006 and August 2001.

Auto Loans and Credit Scores

In 2004, Experian completed a nationwide sampling of 3 million consumer profiles, looking specifically at auto loans. The company discovered that the average U.S. consumer's Plus Score with at least one open auto loan or lease was 683.

If a consumer has one late payment on his vehicle, then the score dropped to 596, according to executives. When a payment on a loan was late by 90 days or more, the median score declined to 574. Finally, if the consumer had a vehicle repossession on his credit report, the average score decreased to 566, Experian said.

Moreover, Experian noted that while many vehicle shoppers point to mid-to-late summer and the end of the year as the best times to purchase vehicles, in actuality, auto loans are opened relatively evenly throughout a year. The only exception to this is August, which showed a slightly higher percentage of new loans.

The company also reported that the average U.S. consumer finances $23,143 for an auto loan or lease, making the average payment $383.

Experian Findings on Auto Loans:

—The average Experian Plus Score for consumer with no late auto payments was 689, compared to 596 if consumers have at least one late payment. When a payment is late by 90 days or more, the median score declines to 574

—The average Plus Score for consumers with a vehicle repossession on their credit report decreased to 566

—The states with the highest repossessions were Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, South Carolina and Nevada

—The average amount financed for a vehicle was $23,143, making the average payment $383

—11 percent of consumers had a monthly payment of $400 or more

Credit Score by Age Group

In another Experian study released in 2005, the company analyzed credit behavior by age group and found what many in the industry may already know — consumers from 18 to 39 have the highest number of late payments, coming in at 1.37 per person on average.

Meanwhile, the average Plus Credit Score for the 30 to 39 age group was the second lowest of the groups, coming in at 654.

As for the middle years, ages 40 to 59, Experian found that these are the consumers with the most debt. Excluding mortgages, consumers in this group have a median debt amount of $21,256. Additionally, the company said the average Plus Credit Score for this age category is 697.

Finally, when it comes to the golden years, including 70 plus, these consumers have the highest average Plus Credit Score at 747. Experian also said this group has the lowest average credit usage at 13.3 percent. On average, an Experian-Gallup poll found that most Americans spend 26 percent of their income on monthly debt.

As consumers prepare for retirement, the Experian-Gallup poll found that more than 55 percent of Americans put at least 5 to 10 percent of their income toward their retirement fund.