DETROIT—U.S. light vehicle sales, led by fatter discounts, strong light truck demand and solid gains at General Motors Co., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. in December, hit a record high in 2016.
Overall sales rose by more than 56,000, or 0.3 percent, over the 2015 record. It was the seventh straight year of sales gains, an impressive streak and rebound for an industry that was down on its heels during the Great Recession. Volume rose 3 percent in December, well ahead of forecasts, pushing 2016's final sales tally to 17.5 million cars and light trucks.
U.S. light-vehicle sales totaled 15.85 million through November. That was just 6,418 ahead of the year-earlier pace, a clear sign the market had hit a plateau.
Yet there was apparently more steam left for December than analysts expected.
Volume rose 10 percent at GM for a second straight month. Nissan advanced 9.7 percent and American Honda posted a 6.4 percent gain. Toyota Motor Corp. increased 2 percent and Ford Motor Co. edged up 0.1 percent, while Fiat Chrysler recorded its third straight double-digit decline.
All four of GM's U.S. brands rose. Chevrolet led the way with a 13 percent increase, followed by GMC (5.8 percent), Cadillac (3.2 percent) and Buick (2.8 percent).
Nissan Motor's December increase reflected an 8.3 percent gain at its namesake division and a 21 percent jump at Infiniti.
The Nissan division set an all-time record with 1.43 million U.S. sales in 2016, up 5.5 percent. And in a sign of how strong light-truck demand has become across the industry, the Rogue crossover topped the Altima sedan to become Nissan's top-selling U.S. model for the first time, with 2016 sales of 329,904, or an increase of 15 percent.
Volume rose 6.9 percent at the Honda division and 1.9 percent at Acura. For the year, Honda Division's U.S. sales rose 4.8 percent to a record 1.48 million.
At Ford Motor, sales were off 0.8 percent at the Ford division and up 18 percent at Lincoln. Toyota said volume edged up 2.6 percent at the Toyota division but slipped 0.5 percent at Lexus last month.
Deliveries dropped 10 percent at FCA US behind a 6 percent decline at Jeep and a 34 percent drop in fleet shipments. Ram was the only FCA U.S. brand to gain last month, with a 10 percent rise. Jeep and Ram posted U.S. sales records last year.
Volume dropped 1.9 percent at Hyundai but rose 0.2 percent at Kia.
The December results among major automakers topped many forecasts. GM sales were predicted to rise 4.4 percent, based on the average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg. Deliveries at Fiat Chrysler, which has discontinued compact and midsize sedans, were projected to drop 14 percent. Volumes at Ford, Toyota, Honda and Nissan were all forecast to slip less than 3 percent.
Among other brands, Infiniti, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Subaru, Audi and Porsche also set annual U.S. sales records in 2016.
Light trucks, led by crossovers, continue to drive the market and accounted for a record 60.7 percent of all light-vehicle deliveries in 2016. For the year, car demand skidded 8.9 percent while light-truck demand advanced 7.4 percent.
Last month featured one fewer selling day than December 2015 and one more weekend.
Automakers and dealers used heavy promotions and generous deals to lure consumers to showrooms last month. A post-election bounce in U.S. equity markets also provided a lift to industry sales in December, some analysts say.
"Key economic indicators, especially consumer confidence, continue to reflect optimism about the U.S. economy and strong customer demand continues to drive a very healthy U.S. auto industry," GM Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem said. "We believe the U.S. auto industry remains well-positioned for sales to continue at or near record levels in 2017."
But analysts warn that rising interest rates and a peaking retail market will force automakers to cut production this year.
"Substantial incentive hikes ... haven't resulted in retail growth, while inventories continue to grow," said Tim Fleming, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "An increasing supply of used cars, especially off-lease units, is already putting pressure on residual values, which could impact the sustainability of today's high levels of leasing. We are looking for manufacturers to cut production in the new year to better match slowing consumer demand and alleviate the need for elevated incentives."