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Nissan leads December sales as Ford, GM fall short of estimates

Nissan’s December U.S. sales led major automakers as a strong year drew to a close. Lower-than estimated gains at Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors did little to dispel the idea that 2015 was one for the record books.

Automakers rode a wave of demand for light trucks as gasoline prices hovered at about $2 a gallon. Nissan’s sales rose 19 percent, marking its best December ever. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, powered by Jeep sport utility vehicles, and Toyota each posted increases of at least 11 percent. By the time Tuesday’s reports conclude, analysts predict the industry will topple the annual American sales record set 15 years ago.

Sales were buoyed by Americans’ renewed love of pickups and SUVs, spurred by the cheap gasoline, easy credit, discounts and a strengthening labor market. Industrywide sales were forecast to exceed an 18 million sales rate for a record fourth straight month, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. While the major U.S. and Asian brands had all been forecast to rise at least 10 percent, Ford said the industry didn’t raise discounts as much as analysts predicted.

“Missing one month for the domestic consensus isn’t a big deal,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with automotive pricing website Edmunds.com, in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t take away from the larger picture of just how strong auto sales were in December and, really, all of 2015 — and how they’re set up to continue in 2016.”

Among the results for individual automakers:

– Fiat Chrysler ‘s 13 percent increase was its 69th straight month of gains. In 2015, the brand debuted the Jeep Renegade in the U.S., one of five new vehicles in the subcompact SUV segment. Jeep deliveries increased 42 percent from a year earlier, led by the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.

– Nissan’s sales of trucks, minivans and sports utility vehicles, including its premium Infiniti brand, rose 44 percent. Sales of its Rogue compact SUV rose and Murano mid-size utility vehicle each jumped more than 60 percent.

– Ford’s F-Series pickups rose 15 percent as the trucks remained the top-selling vehicle line, with an annual total of 780,354 deliveries. The company’s car sales fell in December.

– All four of General Motors’s U.S. brands increased sales in the month, led by Cadillac’s 29 percent expansion. The company did better appealing to actual Americans: It reported an 8 percent gain in retail sales for the year, while it cut back on less-profitable sales to rental-car companies by 11 percent.

A confirmed record for 2015 record would mark a sixth straight year of growing U.S. sales, the longest streak since World War II. The surge is owed in part to buyers who were soothed by job and wage growth, falling gasoline prices and carmakers who upgraded their lineups and used discounts and cut- rate financing to draw shoppers to showrooms.

“The economy is just so much better now,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader.com. “Low gas prices put more money back into the household budget, you’ve had cheap and widely available credit and the automakers are putting out very compelling products, with a ton more in safety features, technology and far better fuel economy.”

The Federal Reserve signaled its own confidence in the economy when it raised interest rates for the first time since 2006 in December, moving away from its unprecedented stimulus program and promising any future increases would be gradual. Morgan Stanley’s Market Implied Pace of Rate Hikes Index suggests the Fed will carry out three 0.25 percentage-point rate increases in the next year.

“We expect a negligible impact on auto sales from last week’s increase,” Oliver Strauss, chief economist at the vehicle valuation research firm TrueCar Inc., said in a Dec. 22 statement. “The rate is still quite low amid an expanding economy.”

John Lippert contributed.

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