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NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Riding out a rough and tumble economy, U.S. automakers are letting their financial belts loose and offering some pretty generous loan terms to new vehicle owners.

That upends some serious conventional wisdom, since for years - decades even - car buyers were more likely to get a better deal from banks than from automakers on financing deals.

Today, that’s not the case.

A typical bank-generated 48-month car loan currently carries an interest rate of 4.667%, according to the BankingMyWay National Auto Rate tracker. The average auto loan rate direct from automakers is lower: 4.2%, according to

If you’re diligent, you can even find 0% financing on select vehicles, like the 2011 Toyota (Stock Quote: TM) Camry and the Chevy Traverse. The Web site offers a good list of 2011 vehicles with 0% financing.

It’s no accident that auto loan rates hit an all-time low in December 2010. reports that the average auto loan rate sank to 4.16% in December, down 0.33% from the previous month, and down 0.55% from December 2009. In addition, 15.4% of all auto loans offered a 0% annual percentage rate.

The auto site says that carmakers really have no choice. If the banks won’t offer good loan deals, then car companies are going to be forced to jump into the market with stronger incentives and lower loan rates.

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"December brought many financially sound consumers back into the market," said Ivan Drury, an analyst at "Deal seekers are generally cautious about their spending, and they likely wouldn't enter the market unless their confidence was complemented by the right incentives."

Buick led the charge, averaging the highest rate of 0% loan deals for car buyers last December. Edmunds says that about half of Buick’s new model line comes with zero-interest loans. Toyota, meanwhile, is offering 0% loan rates on about 40% of its new vehicles, while Cadillac has the same deal on about 33% of its new car loans

Cadillac, like most luxury automakers, is getting increasingly aggressive about luring new customers into the fold. Earlier this month, Cadillac announced that it will offer free scheduled maintenance on 2011 vehicles for the first four years or the first 50,000 miles on the odometer, whichever comes first.

BMW, Volvo, and Jaguar are also offering the same deal, as luxury automakers pump up the incentives to get more buyers onto company dealers’ lots.

That could be a good deal for drivers, too. The Web site Intellichoice says that the first four years of maintenance on a Cadillac CTS sedan would cost about $1,500. With free maintenance, that reduces the cost of the vehicle on top of the great loan rates carmakers are offering consumers right now.

With the traditionally high-volume President’s Day weekend coming up, car buyers could find themselves in the driver’s seat eyeing a spate of low rates, high incentives and increasingly desperate sellers. It’s just about the perfect formula for the car-buying public, but the question is, Will that buyer bite? Automakers certainly hope so. Right now, they really don’t have a Plan B.

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