Pickups and S.U.V.s Lead Way to a Record Year for Automakers

Six years after plunging sales during the recession forced automakers into bankruptcies and painful restructuring, the industry has roared back to achieve new heights.

Automakers said on Tuesday that strong demand for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles in December had helped the industry set an annual record of 17.5 million vehicles sold in the United States in 2015.

The results topped the previous high of 17.4 million vehicles set in 2000, and raised expectations for further increases in the coming months.

Most major manufacturers reported solid gains last month because of low gas prices, easy credit and the fact that the month had two more selling days than the previous December.

One notable exception was the German automaker Volkswagen, which posted a decline partly because of an emissions-cheating scandal that has curtailed the availability of certain diesel-powered vehicles under investigation in the United States and elsewhere.

In December, manufacturers sold 1.64 million vehicles, which represented a 9 percent increase over the previous year. For all of 2015, industry sales increased by about 6 percent.

Analysts said the seasonally adjusted sales rate for December had slipped from the torrid pace set in the previous three months. But that hardly diminished enthusiasm in the industry for another possible record-setting year ahead.

“The strong exit to 2015 bodes well, and we expect the market momentum to continue, with sales projected at 17.8 million in 2016,” said Christopher Hopson, an analyst with the research firm IHS Automotive.

General Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, reported sales of 290,000 vehicles in December, which was a 5.7 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.

The company benefited from strong consumer demand for new truck models like the midsize Chevrolet Colorado pickup, as well as S.U.V.s like the Buick Encore. One surprise was an increase of nearly 29 percent for G.M.’s Cadillac division, which has struggled in recent years to gain share in the ultracompetitive luxury market.

G.M.’s chief economist, G. Mustafa Mohatarem, said favorable economic conditions should propel further gains in the year ahead.

“The single most important pieces are the ongoing gains in employment and the growth in personal income,” he said. “When you add in lower energy prices, it’s easy to see why consumer spending is strong.”

Ford Motor, the second-biggest auto company in the United States, said it sold 237,000 vehicles in December, which was an 8.3 percent increase over the same month a year earlier.

While sales of Ford’s cars slipped about 5 percent during the month, those of its trucks and S.U.V.s rose nearly 13 percent. Leading the way were two of its biggest sellers: the F-Series pickup, which posted about a 15 percent gain, and the Explorer S.U.V., which increased by 17 percent.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported that its December sales jumped 12.6 percent to 217,000 vehicles. The company’s Jeep division was a stellar performer, with an increase in sales of more than 40 percent.

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All three of the major Japanese auto companies had strong months as well.

Toyota Motor said it sold 238,000 vehicles in December, which was a 10.8 percent improvement from the same month a year earlier.

Honda Motor reported a sales increase of about 10 percent, and Nissan Motor said its sales had soared nearly 19 percent. Both companies have done extremely well with new, small S.U.V.s — commonly called crossovers — that appeal to younger buyers.

The year ended poorly for Volkswagen, which reported an overall sales decline of 3.4 percent for December. Sales of the company’s core Volkswagen brand vehicles — which are at the center of the emissions crisis — slid more than 9 percent in December compared with a year earlier.

The bright spot for Volkswagen continued to be its Audi luxury brand, which reported a 6 percent improvement in sales.

Analysts and consumers will be getting a preview over the next two weeks of some of the new models that automakers will offer in 2016.

A number of car companies are showcasing new electric cars this week at International CES, the consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas. And next week car companies will gather for media previews at the annual Detroit auto show.

One industry analyst predicted that advances in technology would accelerate this year, as traditional auto companies compete with tech companies like Google to develop self-driving vehicles.

“With respect to technological change, we believe the answer is far sooner, faster and more powerfully than one might expect,” Adam Jonas, a Morgan Stanley analyst, wrote in a research note on Tuesday.

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