Buoyed by an improved economy, holiday sales, cheap gasoline and a love affair with pickup trucks, Americans headed to car dealers in droves last month, pushing full-year sales to what's likely to be the highest level since 2006.
Fiat Chrysler, Nissan, Honda and General Motors all reported strong December and annual U.S. sales early Monday, with Nissan and Honda hitting record numbers for the year. Ford faltered during the year but it remained the top-selling brand in the United States.
The figures pointed to a strong finish for 2014. Analysts are predicting sales of 16.5 million vehicles, up 6 percent from last year and a return to pre-recession levels. And analysts say Americans will continue to buy cars in big numbers this year. They're predicting sales of 17 million for the first time since 2005, close to the record of 17.3 million set in 2000.
Kelley Blue Book expected December sales to be up nearly 10 percent over the previous year, to 1.5 million, thanks to holiday promotions and milder-than-usual weather.
"Automakers should be grinning as they close the books this year," said John Krafcik, president of the TrueCar.com auto buying site.
Fiat Chrysler led the way with a 16-percent increase over 2013, selling just over 2 million cars and trucks. It was the company's best year since 2006. Nissan and Honda also reported gains in December with both Japanese automakers setting sales records.
Fiat Chrysler was led by the Ram pickup truck, with sales up 24 percent for the year. Pickup truck sales rebounded for nearly all automakers through 2014 as small businesses regained confidence and gas prices fell, making the trucks more attractive. Sales of the Jeep Cherokee small SUV were seven times larger than last year, reaching nearly 179,000. Jeep brand sales rose 41 percent for the year to more than 692,000 vehicles, an annual record.
SUVs of all sizes also were hot sellers last year as buyers went for higher seating positions and better cargo-hauling space.
Nissan said its sales grew 11 percent for the year, to 1.39 million, to set an annual record for the company. Nissan brand sales were up 12 percent for the year, led by the redesigned Rogue small SUV with sales up 22 percent.
At General Motors, a 19-percent sales gain in December helped drive annual sales up 5 percent, to 2.94 million cars and trucks. In December, the Buick brand posted a 32-percent sales gain, while GMC was up 23 percent. Both brands advertised 20-percent discounts off sticker prices. GM's full-size pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, each posted gains of more than 30 percent for the month. The company sold more than 81,000 big pickups.
Honda said its sales last year rose 1 percent, to 1.54 million cars and trucks. That was enough to post the second-best results in company history and a record for the Honda brand. Honda was led by the CR-V small SUV with a 10-percent sales gain, to 335,000. That broke the SUV's annual sales record.
Despite strong sales of the new aluminum-body F-150 last month, Ford sales were flat for the year, at 2.5 million. But Ford laid claim to being America's top-selling brand for the fifth straight year, and the F-Series remained the top-selling vehicle in America. Ford's December sales were up 1 percent from a year ago for its best December since 2005. Big pickup sales were flat compared with last year at just over 74,000.
Low interest rates and loosening credit standards are drawing buyers. Gas prices — which started the year down 33 percent to $2.23 per gallon nationally, according to AAA — are giving buyers more confidence, whether they're buying their first subcompact or upgrading to a bigger SUV.
And people continued to buy more expensive vehicles. TrueCar reports that the average sales price in 2014 hit more than $33,000, up 1.9 percent from a year ago.
Sales growth is likely to slow this year. That could mean more discounts for buyers, since it will be harder for automakers to maintain growth in a slowing market.