Buoyed by cheap gas, improved economy, consumers could boost auto sales above 17 million



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DETROIT — Confident in the economy and cheered by cheap gas, Americans are likely to push new car sales to their highest level in a decade this year.

Analysts expect sales to reach 17 million for the first time since 2005. That's close to the record of 17.3 million set in 2000.

Low gas prices are giving buyers more confidence, whether they're buying their first subcompact or upgrading to a larger SUV. Gas prices started this year at an average of $2.23 per gallon, down 33 percent from the beginning of 2014, according to AAA. The Energy Department estimates that lower gasoline prices will save U.S. households $550 this year — about four months of lease payments on a 2014 Honda Civic.

Popular new vehicles, like the Jeep Cherokee and Subaru Outback, are also drawing buyers.

Sales have now grown for five consecutive years — a rarity in the volatile auto industry.

While sales are growing, the pace has slowed from double-digit increases in 2011 and 2012. That's good news for buyers, who can expect to see bigger discounts in competitive segments like midsize cars as automakers fight to steal sales from each other.

Alec Gutierrez, an analyst with the car buying site Kelley Blue Book, thinks sales could stay in the 17-million range for the next two or three years if interest rates stay low and the U.S. economy remains healthy.

December, with its holiday discounts and warmer-than-usual weather, brought buyers out in droves, with sales up 11 percent over the previous year. Automakers reported December and full-year sales Monday.

For all of 2014, sales were up 6 percent to 16.5 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp. That was the biggest year for the industry since 2006.

Back then — as now — the Ford F-Series was the country's best-selling vehicle and the midsize Toyota Camry was the best-selling car. The top-selling SUV was the Ford Explorer, but it was only No. 14 among all vehicles sold, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. In 2014 two smaller SUVs — the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape — cracked the top 10 in sales as customers turned away from small and midsize cars as car-like handling and low gas prices made such vehicles more appealing.

Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors all reported 2014 sales increases, and Nissan, Subaru, Hyundai and Honda reported record numbers for the year.

Ford's sales were flat, but the Ford brand remained the top-selling brand in the U.S. Among major automakers, only Volkswagen's sales fell.

Here are more details about 2014 and trends to watch for this year:

BEST-SELLERS: General Motors — with its Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC brands — sold the most vehicles in the U.S. in 2014 despite a scandal over the delayed recall of faulty ignition switches in older small cars. GM sold just over 2.9 million vehicles, up 5 percent from 2013.

— WINNERS AND LOSERS: Among major automakers, Subaru was the biggest gainer, with sales up 21 percent to 513,693 vehicles in 2014. Subaru's three new utilities — the Crosstrek, Forester and Outback — drove sales. FiatChrysler was the year's other big gainer, with sales up 16 percent to 2 million, thanks to strong demand for its Jeep and Ram brands. Volkswagen had a difficult year, as sales fell 10 percent while the German automaker waited for new vehicles to hit U.S. showrooms. Mini also struggled as gas prices fell, with sales down nearly 20 percent.

— SUV BOOM: Gas prices accelerated the switch from cars to SUVs. Light trucks, the category that includes SUVs, outsold cars in 2014 — the first time that's happened since 2011, according to car shopping site Edmunds.com. That's partly because automakers are offering more types of SUVs, including fuel-efficient subcompacts such as the Buick Encore, to appeal to young families and Baby Boomers. The trend is likely to continue in 2015 as more small SUVs, like the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade and Mazda CX-3, hit the market.

— LUXURY GROWTH: As the stock market rose, so did sales of expensive vehicles. BMW, Audi, Porsche and Land Rover all reported record U.S. sales in 2014. Lexus luxury sales outpaced mass-market sales last year, and they're expected to do so again this year. Luxury makers are offering more models, like the new Maserati Ghibli sedan and Lincoln MKC SUV, and they're expanding their customer base with lower-priced models like the Mercedes GLK-Class and Jaguar XE due out this year. Mercedes-Benz was expected to be the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. for 2014.

— PICKUP WARS: Ford's F-Series, the best-selling truck in the U.S. for 38 years, saw sales drop in 2014 as the company temporarily halted production to prepare for its new aluminum-sided F-150. The new truck arrived at dealerships in December, but inventory won't be at normal levels until the middle of 2015. In the meantime, rivals are offering big deals to lure customers away. Ram truck sales rose 24 percent in 2014, while Silverado sales gained 10 percent.

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