What credit score is needed to buy a car?

Mitch Strohm

If you need to finance a new or used vehicle, pay close attention to your credit score. Lenders use it to determine the rate you’ll get on a loan or whether you’ll get a loan at all.

Those with higher scores generally receive the best rates, and finding the cheapest possible financing is becoming more important as the amount and length of auto loans continues to grow.

The average loan amount for a new vehicle in the third quarter of 2016 was $30,022, up 4 percent from the same period a year prior, according to data from credit bureau Experian. For used vehicles, the average loan amount was $19,227, up 2 percent from the year prior.

At the same time, average loan terms for new and used vehicles hit 68 and 66 months, respectively.

The average credit score needed to buy a car: Borrowers who received financing for a new car in the third quarter had an average credit score of 714. Those who borrowed funds for used cars had an average score of 655.

Experian uses a credit score model of 300 to 850, with super prime borrowers at the top and deep subprime borrowers at the bottom.

If your credit score doesn’t hit the average mark, you might still qualify for a loan. Nearly 23 percent of loan financing in the third quarter went to those with subprime and deep subprime credit (those with scores of 600 and below). Around 57 percent went to prime and super prime borrowers (those with scores of 661 and up). The rest went to the nonprime market, those with credit scores between 601 and 660.

Still, subprime and deep subprime borrowers are seeing less of the market share.

“This quarter’s report shows that lenders are reducing the percentage of loans to the subprime and deep subprime risk tiers while increasing the percentage to consumers with good credit,” Melinda Zabritski, Experian’s senior director of automotive finance, said in a press release.

Car loan rates by credit score: If you’re a super prime borrower with a credit score of 781 and above, you can expect to get the lowest rates. In the third quarter, super prime borrowers received a new car loan rate of 2.6 percent on average.

But if you’re a deep subprime borrower with a credit score of 500 and below, you can expect to pay around five times more for a new car loan. Deep subprime borrowers received a new car loan rate of 13.53 percent on average.

What you can expect to pay: The average payment in the third quarter on a new loan was $495 per month. For a used vehicle, the average was $362.

Super prime borrowers financing a new vehicle will pay a little less. If that’s you, expect your monthly payment to land somewhere around $475, assuming you’re financing a $30,000 loan for 68 months at a rate of 2.6 percent.

Deep subprime borrowers can expect to pay around $634, or $159 more for the same loan. They’ll also pay nearly $10,900 more in interest over the life of the loan.

Before you shop: If you fall in the subprime or deep subprime category, you’ll need to take some steps to improve your credit score if you want to receive the cheapest possible financing.

Here are just a few ways to start improving:

■Pay all of your bills on time, every time.

■Keep your credit balances low.

■Open new credit only when you need it.

It’s also important to check your credit report consistently for errors, regardless of which credit tier you fall into.

Look for the best financing: Once you start shopping, get quotes from multiple lenders and aim to get the lowest rate possible. Even a small difference in interest rate can have a significant impact on the amount you pay over the life of the loan.

The bottom line: While it’s possible to get a car loan with subprime or deep subprime credit, you’ll be better off financially in the long-run if you can wait out purchasing a vehicle until your credit improves.

Putting a hefty down payment on a vehicle can also lift some of the financial burden of financing. Overall, prime and super prime borrowers receive the most car loans and the best rates.