U.S. automakers enjoyed stronger sales than expected in December, suggesting that the auto industry may set an all-time full-year record for vehicle sales.
Heading into December, the industry was teetering on the edge of a new record, after setting the mark at 17.47 million vehicles in 2015.
After early indications of strong results Friday, General Motors projected that industry sales would achieve a record at 17.5 million units for the year.
That would mark the eighth consecutive full-year increase following the Great Recession, which nearly wiped out GM and Chrysler.
Average transaction prices hit an all-time high of $35,309 in December, up 1.5% from a year earlier, according to Kelley Blue Book.
The Detroit automaker soared past analyst expectations, recording U.S. sales growth of 10% in December, compared to a year earlier. The company sold 319,108 vehicles for the month.
Analysts at Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book had projected sales growth of 3.1% and 3.7%, respectively.
GM's strong December included an increase of more than 3% in sales to retail customers, which are more profitable than sales to fleet clients, such as rental-car companies.
The company's flagship Chevrolet brand posted an increase of 12.8% to 212,959 vehicles, despite a 13.8% decrease for its most popular vehicle, the Silverado pickup truck.
The GMC brand increased 5.8%, Buick rose 2.8% and Cadillac increased 3.2%.
GM's stock jumped 3.5% to $36.40 at 9:57 a.m.
“We finished 2016 with a strong December, reflecting the continued strength of GM’s U.S. retail and commercial businesses,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales operations, 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.”
The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker posted a sales gain of 0.3% in December to 239,854 units.
That outpaced Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book expectations of 1.6% and 2.4% declines, respectively.
The company said its retail sales rose 5%. Sales of the F-series pickup truck, the nation's most popular vehicle, increased 2.7% to 87,512 units.
Ford's namesake brand posted a 0.6% sales decline to 227,063 units. The Lincoln luxury brand continued its hot streak, increasing 17.8% to 12,791.
Low gasoline prices continued to hurt cars and bolster crossovers, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. Ford's overall car sales fell 11.7% to 51,205.
Ford's stock rose 2.8% to $12.94 at 9:57 a.m.
Fiat Chrysler's U.S. sales fell 10% in December, compared to a year earlier, to 192,519 units as the company continued to dramatically reduce its previously heavy reliance on fleet sales.
Although the decline was steep, the performance was better than expected. Analysts at Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book had projected sales declines of 12.2% and 11.2%, respectively.
Fiat Chrysler retail sales fell only 2% to 155,987, while fleet sales plunged 34% to 36,532.
Sales of the crucial Jeep brand fell 6.4% to 83,159 vehicles. The brand's crossovers and SUVs remain hot among retail consumers.
The car-heavy Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat brands continued their contraction, falling 31.7%, 21.4% and 53.6%, respectively.
The Ram brand, however, which features pickups and vans, increased 10.2% to 53,597.