U.S. auto sales appear to have enjoyed a surprising, albeit slight, uptick in 2018, according to analyst estimates.
With automakers reporting their full-year and December sales on Thursday, analysts said the industry likely outperformed their original expectations despite concerns about a cooling global economy and rising interest rates.
Edmunds.com estimated full-year sales of 17.3 million vehicles, while Cox Automotive projected a "modest uptick" to 17.2 million. Sales totaled about 17.2 million in 2017.
Low unemployment, tax cuts and cheaper gas prices paved the way for the industry to deliver another strong year, according to Cox Automotive economist Jonathan Smoke.
"Consumers here are looking at their personal financial situation, and ... the data and the confidence right up through December suggest that they still assess that very favorably," said Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle.
For December, Edmunds analysts projected a sales increase of 0.3 percent, while Cox Automotive predicted a 0.6 percent decline. Ford said the final industry sales performance for the month was about flat.
Either way, the industry appears to have achieved its fourth straight year above 17 million vehicles. At its trough this century, sales dipped to 10.4 million in 2009 during the Great Recession. The all-time record high was 17.6 million in 2016.
The year 2019 may not look quite as nice as the last several years. Stock market volatility is rattling investors, and rising interest rates are increasing the cost of car payments.
But Toyota general manager Jack Hollis said the industry remains in "pretty great" condition and would likely record total sales in the "upper 16" range in 2019.
"If those concerns are out there, they haven’t in the short term affected behavior," said David Christ, general manager of Toyota's Lexus brand.
To be sure, some brands have taken a step back as passenger-car sales continue to struggle. Americans are buying SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks at a steady clip, choosing roomier rides over cramped cars.
In 2015, cars represented 43 percent of sales, according to Cox Automotive. In 2018, it was down to 30 percent.
About 1 in 2 vehicles sold in 2019 will be SUVs or crossovers, according to projections by car-buying advice site Edmunds.
In December, Ford and Toyota posted sales declines of 8.8 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. But Honda and Nissan outpaced expectations with sales increases of 3.9 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively.
Subaru continued its hot streak in the U.S. with an all-time record for the full year at 680,135 vehicles. The brand is more popular than Volkswagen and Kia, by comparison.
Subaru also reached an all-time high for a single month as sales rose 5 percent in December.
Here's how the major automakers fared in December and 2018, compared with a year earlier:
Edmunds December forecast: -3.6 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: -2.8 percent
Actual results for December: GM no longer provides monthly sales figures, but the company reported that its fourth-quarter sales fell 2.7 percent to 785,229 vehicles.
During the fourth quarter, the Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick brands fell 3.2 percent, 2.7 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively. The GMC brand rose 3.5 percent.
The Chevy Silverado, GM's most popular vehicle, declined 3.6 percent to 161,178 in the fourth quarter.
Several SUVs delivered strong performances. The Chevy Equinox was up 26.4 percent to 98,239, the Chevy Traverse rose 14.1 percent to 39,536 and the Chevy Trax increased 16.5 percent to 22,378.
But several passenger car models suffered as Americans sought out bigger vehicles. The Spark, Sonic, Impala and Bolt electric car fell 40.9 percent, 55.7 percent, 49.9 percent and 30.9 percent, respectively. GM announced in the fourth quarter that it would discontinue several car models in 2019, including the Chevy Cruze, Impala and Volt.
Actual results for 2018: -1.6 percent (2.954 million vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: -9.5 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: -4.5 percent
Actual results for December: -8.8 percent (220,774 vehicles)
The namesake Ford brand fell 9.6 percent in December, while the luxury Lincoln lineup increased 8.5 percent.
Overall, Ford's passenger car sales plunged 27.8 percent. The company is discontinuing most of its passenger cars, including the Focus, Fusion and Taurus.
Ford's SUV sales declined 4.4 percent, and its truck and van sales fell 3.8 percent.
The F-series pickup, the most popular model in the U.S., slipped 1.8 percent to 87,772 vehicles.
Actual results for 2018: -3.5 percent (2.497 million)
Edmunds December forecast: 16.1 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: 10.5 percent
Actual results for December: 14.3 percent (196,520 vehicles)
The Jeep and Ram brands helped Fiat Chrysler cap off a strong year, as the company capitalized on the nationwide transition from cars into SUVs, crossovers and pickups.
In December, the Jeep brand was up 9.9 percent to 80,449, while the Ram brand increased 36.7 percent to 68,195. The Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Compass rose 44.5 percent and 45.8 percent, respectively, to 19,800 and 12,745 vehicles.
After a recent redesign, the Ram pickup, which is Fiat Chrysler's best-seller, surged 34 percent to 60,155.
The Dodge brand increased 16.7 percent, the Fiat brand declined 43.8 percent and the Alfa Romeo brand fell 4.3 percent.
Actual results for 2018: 8.5 percent (2.235 million vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: -1.3 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: -1.3 percent
Actual results for December: -0.9 percent (220,910 vehicles)
The Toyota brand posted a 1.1 percent sales decline in December, while the Lexus luxury brand posted a 0.2 percent increase.
The Toyota Corolla rose 27.4 percent to 25,439 as the company sells the old model and prepares to begin selling the redesigned version in March. But several other car models posted sharp declines.
Overall, Toyota's total passenger-car sales fell 15.1 percent in December, while its sales of pickups, crossovers and SUVs increased 8 percent.
The Tacoma midsize pickup capped off an impressive year with a sales increase of 15.1 percent in December to 21,531 vehicles. The recently redesigned RAV4 SUV is enjoying a strong debut, as sales rose 18.8 percent to 38,669, easily making it Toyota's best seller.
Actual results for 2018: -0.3 percent (2.426 million vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: -6.1 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: -6 percent
Actual results for December: 7.6 percent (148,720 vehicles)
Nissan's surprising sales increase in December came from a 7.2 percent increase in the Nissan brand and a 10.3 percent increase in the Infiniti brand.
The company set its all-time single-month record for sales of the Nissan Rogue SUV, which rose 5.9 percent to 42,523 vehicles.
It nearly outsold Nissan's next three best-sellers: the Altima, Sentra and Murano, which totaled 42,664.
Actual results for 2018: -6.6 percent (1.345 million vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: -1.9 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: -6.2 percent
Actual results for December: 3.9 percent (155,115 vehicles)
Honda outperformed expectations, as passenger-car sales rose 4.2 percent and sales of SUVs, crossovers and pickups increased 2.1 percent.
The Honda brand was up 3 percent, while the Acura brand increased 11.4 percent.
The company's Accord sedan led the surprising sales increase for cars, rising 29.4 percent to 28,627. But the Civic compact car was down 16 percent to 26,284.
Actual results for 2018: -2.2 percent (1.604 million vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: 8.2 percent
Cox Automotive December forecast: 3.2 percent
Actual results for December: Hyundai rose 3.4 percent to 65,721 vehicles. Its sibling brand, Kia, was up 10.2 percent to 47,428 vehicles.
Actual results for 2018: Hyundai was down 1.1 percent to 677,946. Kia sold five more vehicles in 2018 than it did in 2017 for a total of 589,673.
Edmunds December forecast: -4 percent (does not include Porsche)
Cox Automotive December forecast: -5.2 percent
Actual results for December: 5.8 percent
The Volkswagen brand outdid expectations with a 6.8 percent increase in passenger-car sales and a 4.8 percent increase in sales of crossovers and SUVs. Much of the increase came from the Jetta, which rose 42 percent to 10,261 units as the company prepares for a redesigned version this year.
Actual results for 2018: Not yet available
Edmunds December forecast: (not provided)
Cox Automotive December forecast: 2.6 percent
Actual results for December: 1.9 percent (64,541 vehicles)
Subaru sold more vehicles in a single month than it had ever sold before. It also broke its previous full-year record set in 2017, as the Japanese brand continued its momentum in the U.S.
Actual results for 2018: 5 percent (680,135 vehicles)
Edmunds December forecast: 19,336 vehicles (no year-over-year forecast provided)
Cox Automotive December forecast: Not provided
Actual results for December: Tesla doesn't report monthly sales figures. The company said it sold 90,700 vehicles during the fourth quarter, up 8 percent from the previous quarter. That included 63,150 Model 3 cars.
Actual results for 2018: 245,240 vehicles, up 138 percent
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GM, Ford, Toyota sales fall in December, but auto industry posts surprisingly solid 2018