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By Reuters

Automakers on Tuesday set a new U.S. sales record for 2015 even as December sales fell short of expectations. Most forecasters said the new year will be even better.

For full year 2015, U.S. sales hit a record of 17.47 million vehicles, breaking the mark of 17.41 million vehicles in 2000, according to Autodata Corp., as low gasoline prices, easy credit and moderate economic growth boosted the industry.

Autodata said December sales on an annualized rate, accounting for seasonal factors, were 17.34 million vehicles, well below the 18.1 million vehicles expected by a Thomson Reuters poll of 38 economists and analysts.

“The U.S. economy continues to expand and the most important factors that drive demand for new vehicles are in place, so we expect to see a second consecutive year of record industry sales in 2016,” said Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for General Motors Co. Mohatarem said the most important factors are employment and growth in personal income, which will remain strong this year.

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GM, the top seller in the United States, said its monthly sales rose 5.7 percent from a year ago, and Ford Motor Co., the No. 2 U.S. automaker, reported a jump of 8 percent.

Sales of Ford's F-Series pickup truck rose 15 percent in December. The F-Series, led by the F-150 pickup, extended two streaks: 39 years as the best-selling truck in the United States and 34 years as the best-selling vehicle of any kind.

U.S. consumers continued in December and in 2015 to shift from cars, including sedans and hatchbacks, to SUVs, crossovers and trucks. They were encouraged by low gasoline prices and better fuel economy for the larger vehicles, said Mark LeNeve, head of Ford's U.S. sales.

At GM, car sales fell 14.2 percent in 2015 while sales of trucks, crossovers and SUVs rose 16.3 percent. GM car sales were at their lowest share of U.S. sales, 30.2 percent, in 2015. In 2014, car sales accounted for 37 percent of GM's U.S. sales. Before 2000, cars never accounted for less than one-half of all U.S. sales.

Toyota Motor Corp., third in U.S. sales, had a gain of 11 percent. Honda Motor Co. set an annual record for U.S. sales at 1.59 million vehicles, up 3 percent. Honda's December sales rose 10 percent.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. posted double-digit U.S. sales gains in December, Fiat Chrysler up 13 percent and Nissan up 19 percent.

Fiat Chrysler is the No. 4 seller of vehicles in the U.S. market, while Honda is fifth and Nissan is sixth.

Volkswagen AG's VW brand sales fell 9 percent in December, vs. a 25 percent drop in November as the company's diesel emissions scandal began to pressure its performance.

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Looking ahead, some forecasters, including TrueCar Inc., said U.S. sales will hit 18 million vehicles this year. The Federal Reserve's recent interest rate increase should not be enough to deter sales.

"Interest rates would have to reach 3 percent next year before we see an inflection point that causes the year-over-year growth rate to stagnate," TrueCar's chief economist, Oliver Strauss, said. “Even if we end 2016 with a rate of 1 percent, we think 18 million sales is attainable."

The industry has steadily recovered since the 2008-2009 downturn. In 2009, sales hit 10.4 million vehicles, which was the lowest level, when adjusted for population, since World War II.