How to choose between fixed and variable rate car loans

How to choose between fixed and variable rate car loans

Before you buy a new set of wheels, it helps to explore your financing options and choose the right type of car loan to get the maximum value out of the deal. Unfortunately, there's no formula to decide which car loan is the best for you, but learning more about the available options can help you make an informed choice. 

Fixed vs variable interest rate car loans

When you're applying for a loan to finance your car, one of the first decisions you have to make is choosing between a fixed and variable interest rate car loan. Both the options have pros and cons and you have to pick the one that matches your personal and financial needs. 

Car dealerships often offer fixed-rate car loans, where the interest rate remains fixed for the entire duration of the loan or a part of it. As a result, the repayment amount doesn’t change during the fixed period, and you know exactly how much you need to pay to the lender each month. Having certainty about your repayments may help you manage your household budget better. Another advantage of taking out a fixed interest rate car loan is that even if the market rate suddenly goes up, your repayments will stay the same.

On the other hand, a variable-rate car loan has an interest rate that follows the market. It means your interest rate could go up or down throughout the loan term according to the lender’s rate. So, while you may start paying down your car loan at the lender's advertised rate, you might find your repayments drop if the lender cuts its interest rate. On the flip side, you may end up making higher repayments if the rates rise.

Should I pick a fixed or a variable car loan?

Deciding between a fixed and variable rate car loan may depend on your preference and financial situation. Risk-averse borrowers often tend to prefer the stability offered by a fixed-rate car loan. However, the certainty in payments comes at the cost of reduced flexibility, as most fixed-rate car loans levy early repayment and prepayment charges. If you're expecting your income to increase in the future and plan to pay down your loan early, a variable rate car loan might prove to be a choice with more flexibility on offer. It's also often easier to refinance a variable rate car loan as there are no penalties or break fees applicable in most cases. On the other hand, you might be required to pay a fee for refinancing a fixed-rate car loan. 

Whether you choose predictability over flexibility or vice-versa, the decision eventually rests on a thorough evaluation of your finances and appetite for risk. Overall, it's essential to consider the interest rate, fees, features and benefits of car loans from multiple lenders before picking a product that suits your present and future personal and financial needs. 

Compare fixed and variable rate car loans online to kickstart your search.

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Fact Checked -

This article was reviewed by Personal Finance Editor Mark Bristow before it was published as part of RateCity's Fact Check process.

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Learn more about car loans

How do you get a car loan?

There are four different ways you can get a car loan. You can go straight to a lender. You can get a finance broker to organise a car loan for you. You can get ‘dealer finance’ – which is when the car dealer organises a car loan for you. Or you can organise your own car loan through a comparison website, like RateCity.

Whichever method you choose, you will need to provide proof of identification, proof of income and proof of savings. So you may be asked for any combination of passport, driver’s licence, bank statements, payslips, tax returns and utility bills. You might also be asked to provide proof of insurance.

Should I service my own car?

There are also costs associated with vehicle ownership, such as paying for petrol and the obligatory ongoing maintenance. But should you cut down on costs by servicing your own vehicle?

If you’re considering getting out the tool box, spanner, and grease-laden towel, you need to carefully weigh up the risks and benefits. A trained mechanic will need to complete certain tasks, while you may be perfectly capable to handle other aspects yourself.

If you’re short on time, it may be worth paying for the convenience of a full vehicle service. However if you’re trying to slash your expenses, there are some basic maintenance tasks that you can complete yourself.

You should call a mechanic if you’re unsure about a vehicle maintenance task you’re about to take on. However there are a number of maintenance tasks that you may be able to complete with your own two hands including:

  • Replacing your car battery
  • Changing the oil
  • Replacing worn windscreen wipers
  • Replacing blown fuses

Remember to keep your car’s body in good condition, by washing and applying a protective wax on a regular basis, too.

Always check your car warranty agreement as some new car purchases come with an extended car warranty provided your services are conducted at the vehicle service centre where you purchased the car. In these circumstances, you may find the service fee is capped, alleviating some of the maintenance woes.

What is vehicle finance?

Vehicle finance, also known as a car loan, is money that a consumer borrows with the express purpose of buying a vehicle, such as a car, motorbike, van, truck or campervan. Vehicle finance can be used for both new and used vehicles.

What is dealer finance?

Dealer finance is a car loan organised through a car dealer – as opposed to car loans organised by a finance broker or directly by the lender.

What is a loan term?

The loan term is the amount of time the lender gives you to repay the car loan. For example, if you take out a $20,000 car loan with a five-year loan term, you would be expected to pay off the entire $20,000 (plus interest) within five years.

What is a dealership?

A dealership is a car yard or a place where cars are sold.

What is a loan-to-value ratio?

The loan-to-value ratio, or LVR, is a percentage that expresses the amount of money owed on the car compared to the value of the car. For example, if you take out a $15,000 loan to buy a $20,000 car, you have a loan-to-value ratio of 75 per cent. Loan-to-value ratios change over time as you pay off your loan and your car depreciates in value. For example, two years later you might now owe $10,000 on your car, which might now be worth $15,000. In that case, although there would still be a $5,000 difference between the size of the outstanding loan and the value of the car, the loan-to-value ratio would now be 67 per cent.

What is a car loan?

A car loan, also known as vehicle finance, is money that a consumer borrows with the express purpose of buying a vehicle, such as a car, motorbike, van, truck or campervan. Car loans can be used for both new and used vehicles.

What is a fixed-rate loan?

A fixed-rate loan is one where the interest rate remains constant for an agreed amount of time. For example, if you take out a five-year fixed-rate loan at 8.75 per cent, the lender is obliged to leave your interest rate at 8.75 per cent for at least five years. By contrast, if you take out a variable-rate loan at 8.75 per cent, the lender can change the interest rate whenever it wants.

How to find a great car loan

Historically, finding a great car loan would require excess research ranging from visiting an excess of websites or making phone calls, but technology has moved on. Using RateCity, Australia’s leading financial comparison service, you can check out great deals from a range of lenders on the one site.

To start, select the amount you want to borrow and the length of the loan, narrowing your search to show just fixed or variable interest rate results.

Once you’ve indicated your search criteria, you’ll see an immediate list of lenders, ranked by interest rate or application fees. You’ll also be able to view the monthly repayment amount for each result, helping you to know what you can afford.

Up to six products can be compared side-by-side, complete with more information about each car loan, giving you more information about your options.

When comparing your car loan options, it’s ideal to keep in mind some points find a great car loan for your needs. Consider the following:

  • Choosing a low interest car loan can reduce costs
  • Selecting an option with low fees and charges is ideal, because these can really add up
  • Be aware of penalties, such as early exit penalties if you pay off the loan sooner than expected
  • Consider the features that best suit your situation

There are many ways to ensure that you get a great car loan. Ultimately, you’ll end up with the best deal by doing your research and selecting the most suitable product for you.

What is a variable-rate loan?

A variable-rate loan is one where the lender can change the interest rate whenever it wants. For example, if you sign up for a variable-rate loan at 8.75 per cent, the lender might change the interest rate to 8.90 per cent the month after and then 8.65 per cent the month after that. By contrast, if you take out a five-year fixed-rate loan at 8.75 per cent, the lender is obliged to leave your interest rate at 8.75 per cent for at least five years.

Where can I get a student car loan?

Student car loans are not a necessarily a product in and of themselves, but what you may be looking for is a guarantor car loan.

A guarantor car loan has a third-party act as a form of guarantee for your loan application, telling the bank or lender that if you default on your loan, someone will pay the loan repayments.

Going guarantor on a car loan is no new thing, and before internet-based credit scores, guarantor car loan applicants would apply for loans with a guarantor or property owner who could vouch for the person borrowing the loan.

To get a guarantor car loan, you’ll need someone willing to act as a guarantor for your car loan.

What is a secured car loan?

A secured car loan is a loan that is connected to a form of security, or collateral. Generally, the security for a car loan is the car itself. If you fail to repay the loan, the lender might seize your car, sell it and then use the proceeds to recover their debt.

What is a guarantor car loan?

A guarantor car loan is a type of loan that features a guarantor on the agreement. The guarantor is a third-party individual, often a friend or relative, who guarantees the loan will be repaid if the borrower defaults on the car loan.

Guarantor car loans are often geared at people who might otherwise struggle being accepted for a secured car loan when purchasing a vehicle. Some of the reasons might include a lack of credit history such as with a student or young person, if there’s bad credit, or age as a factor such as with pensioners.