DETROIT (AP) — Americans are buying more new cars than ever before.
U.S. auto sales were expected to reach a record high of 17.5 million in 2015, topping the old record of 17.35 million set in 2000. Analysts expect sales could go even higher this year as unemployment continues to decline and more young buyers enter the market.
Automakers reported December and full-year sales Tuesday.
Low gas prices and historically low interest rates left more money in buyers' pockets. Nationwide, gas prices ended the year at an average of $2 per gallon, according to AAA. And while the Federal Reserve raised a key interest rate in December, it remains near zero. By comparison, that rate was 6.2 percent in 2000.
Oliver Strauss, the chief economist at car buying site TrueCar.com, says the interest rate would have to reach 3 percent before it would cause car sales to stagnate.
Employment numbers also improved last year, and more buyers — particularly the under-34 Millennials — found they couldn't afford a new car. People who held off purchases during the recession were also lured back into the market by enticing new vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee and the revamped Ford F-150 pickup. Ford sold 780,354 F-Series trucks last year — more than one every minute — making it the nation's top-selling vehicle.
Here are more details of 2015 sales:
WINNERS AND LOSERS: General Motors led all automakers in the U.S. last year, with sales up 5 percent to just over 3 million cars and trucks. Ford was the best-selling brand for the sixth straight year, with sales of just over 2.5 million. Volkswagen, meanwhile, saw sales plummet after it admitted in September that its diesel cars cheated on U.S. emissions tests.
SUV LOVE AFFAIR: As gas prices fell, Americans upsized. Pickup trucks and SUVs have outsold cars for each of the last 28 months, and they show no signs of a slowdown, according to car shopping site Edmunds.com. But unlike 2000, when the midsize Ford Explorer was the nation's third-best seller, small SUVs like the Honda CR-V are the vehicle of choice for both aging Boomers and Millennials. Sales of the Nissan Rogue small SUV jumped 44 percent in 2015.
FUEL EFFICIENCY BLUES: Low gas prices also have a victim: Small cars, hybrids and electrics. Sales of Nissan's Leaf electric car dropped 43 percent last year to just over 17,000. Subcompact cars were also hurting. Chevrolet Sonic sales fell 31 percent for the year.
DECEMBER TO REMEMBER: Car shopping site Edmunds.com predicted the biggest December in history for the auto industry, with nearly 1.7 million vehicles sold. Warm weather helped, along with the usual round of holiday promotions. Car shopping site TrueCar.com said incentive spending rose 4 percent over last December to an average of $3,063 per vehicle.
Toyota's U.S. sales rose 11 percent over last December, while Nissan's were up 19 percent. GM's U.S. sales rose 6 percent, Ford's were up 8 percent and Fiat Chrysler's sales jumped 13 percent.