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Boosted by a better-than-anticipated December, U.S. auto sales set a record in 2016, as carmakers sold 17.55 million vehicles.

Sales for the year were up 0.4 percent over the record-breaking 2015.

“December certainly came in stronger than we expected. We had known all year it could be a photo finish,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Autotrader, a car shopping website. “We always knew it would depend on what kind of incentives were offered and how consumers would take to those. And they took just fine.”

Automakers eclipsed the record year of 2015 by some 70,000 vehicles, according to Autodata Corp. Buyers continued to favor trucks and SUVs: Light-truck sales totaled 59.5 percent of all sales last year or 10.45 million, with cars representing 40.5 percent or 7.1 million, Autodata said. A year ago those percentages were 55.8 percent and 9.75 million for trucks and SUVs compared to 44.2 percent and 7.73 million for cars.

Several automakers posted record sales in 2016: Nissan Group of North America, American Honda Motor Co. Inc., Hyundai Motor America, Kia Motors America, Mercedes-Benz USA and Subaru.

Ford Motor Co. sales fell 0.1 percent to nearly 2.6 million vehicles, according to Autodata. General Motors Co. sales topped 3 million and were down 1.3 percent; sales to consumers grew by nearly 2 percent and fleet sales fell by about 74,000 vehicles. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV sales of 2.24 million were flat compared to 2015.

With five shopping weekends in the month, December sales jumped 3.1 percent to 1.69 million vehicles from the same month in 2015. Most analysts predicted sales would fall slightly because December 2016 had one fewer selling day.

“December significantly outperformed expectations and it did so in the last week of the month,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive.

Confident consumers flocked to dealerships, encouraged by low interest rates, unemployment and gas prices, automakers and analysts say.

GM had the largest sales gain for December of Detroit’s Big Three, posting a 9.9 percent increase as each of its four brands posted monthly year-over-year increases. Ford managed a 0.1 percent increase. Fiat Chrysler’s December sales fell 10 percent.

“We finished 2016 with a strong December, reflecting the continued strength of GM’s U.S. retail and commercial businesses,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s vice president of GM’s U.S. sales operations, said in a statement. “We begin 2017 well-positioned to continue growing our U.S. retail business, driven by all-new products like the Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse being launched into key, growing U.S. market segments.”

“November and December were both stronger I believe than where everybody was calling it,” Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a call with analysts and reporters. “Our business was somewhat stronger than our internal forecast, which we think is a really good indicator.”

Ford’s F-Series was the best-selling vehicle in America for the 35th straight year, and the top-selling pickup for the 40th year; 2016 sales reached 820,799, up 5.2 percent.

The Camry was the top-selling car in America for the 15th straight year.

Krebs said several companies used incentives to aid sales in 2016. Those accelerated in November and December.

“The industry bought a record with incentives and with fleet volume,” LMC Automotive’s Schuster said. “Both were up this year compared to 2015. It couldn’t have been done without a favorable environment from consumers.”

Carmakers and analysts remain optimistic about strong sales continuing for 2017, though some believe the pace will decline slightly. The industry has grown for eight straight years.

LMC Automotive expects 2017 auto sales will fall by about 25,000 vehicles and Kelley Blue Book expects 2017 sales will range between 16.8 million and 17.3 million. Edmunds.com, another car shopping website, predicts sales of 17.2 million this year.

Krebs said that while the industry should continue to perform strongly in 2017, there is some uncertainty that will affect sales results. She said there are unknowns about a proposed Mexico border tariff by President-elect Donald Trump. Prices keep going up. And more vehicles being returned off-lease, making used cars more attractive.

“I just think it’s a giant mixing bowl of ifs, and we don’t know what the entire picture looks like,” she said.

mburden@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2319

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