Buy a Car on Credit?
By: Brian O'Connell

No, it’s not sbup’s “Deals of the Week” column (that comes every Wednesday) but American Express’s offer that allows its customers to put the entire cost of a new car on their credit cards is the kind of deal that legends are made of — good and bad. Here’s the deal, and why bigger may not always mean better when it comes to card deals.

First, it’s only fair to state that American Express (Stock Quote: AXP) is at the top of the list of credit card companies when it comes to customer service. The J.D. Power & Associates 2009 Credit Card Satisfaction Study Rankings place AmEx number one in its rankings, with a score of 762 (out of a possible 1,000).

AmEx is also pervasive across the U.S. consumer landscape, with 54 million cards in circulation, according to the Nilson Report.

But allowing Americans to pay for an entire new car with a credit card comes when:

  • American credit card debt reached $972 billion in 2008, according to Nilson.
  • The national 60-day auto loan delinquency rate is up 1.2% from the third quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008.

So, is it really a good idea for AmEx to encourage cardholders to pay for a new car completely with plastic? American Express certainly thinks so. Under the company’s American Express Auto Purchasing Program, cardholders can walk into a car dealer, pick out a vehicle and pay for it with the American Express card. Only eligible cardholders make the cut (i.e. you’ll need a sterling payment history and a stellar credit rating to qualify, which keeps higher-risk customers on the outside looking in).

AmEx customers pay no additional fee (thankfully) for using the card to buy the new car, and the customer can also earn big rewards points for paying for that new Cadillac with his or her credit card.

On its Web site, American Express takes great pains to point out that it’s not a broker, nor is it on the business of selling or leasing new cars. It also clearly states that any purchase is subject to credit line approval.

AmEx does offer some price protection for its “new car club” members. If an AmEx customer uses his or her card to buy a new car, and within thee days finds the same vehicle selling at a lower price, AmEx will refund the difference. AmEx has outsourced the entire new car purchase program to an online partner,

Advocates say it’s a good idea to have the financial muscle of American Express behind you when shopping for a new car, while critics say that paying for a new car with a credit card is never a good idea.

In the middle, waving that shiny hunk of plastic is American Express, which is plowing ahead with the program in the face of tough economic headwinds and a consumer culture where Americans are reluctant to fill their gas tanks using a credit card, let alone buying a new car with one.

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