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Banner year for auto sales in nation and N.M.

DETROIT — U.S. auto sales hit a record high of 17.47 million in 2015, topping the old record of 17.35 million set in 2000. Analysts expect sales could go even higher this year as unemployment continues to decline and more young buyers enter the market.

Automakers reported December and full-year sales Tuesday.

Dealers in New Mexico apparently enjoyed 2015 as much as their counterparts elsewhere.

Charles Henson, president of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association, said he didn’t yet have 2015 sales figures but expected they’ll be in line with the national numbers. He said sales were “exceptional” in the second and third quarters, though things may have leveled out at the end of the year.

As always, Henson said, the “backbone” of the New Mexico industry was the pickup truck, sales of which stay strong even in off-years.  “This state lives and works in a half-ton pickup truck,” he said.

And, as elsewhere, falling gas prices released pent-up demand for SUVs, which is more of a discretionary purchase.

“It’s a lot easier to make that decision to purchase when youre paying $1.99 for gas,” Henson said.

Besides low gas prices, historically low interest rates left more money in buyers’ pockets. While the Federal Reserve raised a key interest rate in December, it remains near zero. By comparison, that rate was 6.2 percent in 2000.

Oliver Strauss, the chief economist at car buying site, says the interest rate would have to reach 3 percent before it would cause car sales to stagnate.

Employment numbers also improved last year, so more buyers — particularly the huge generation of under-34 millennials — found they could finally afford a new car. People who held off purchases during the recession were also lured back into the market by enticing new vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee and the revamped Ford F-150 pickup. Ford sold 780,354 F-Series trucks last year — more than one every minute — making it the nation’s top-selling vehicle.

Analysts say the growth should continue this year, but at a slower pace.

Here are more details of 2015 sales:

WINNERS AND LOSERS: General Motors led all automakers in the U.S. last year, with sales up 5 percent to just over 3 million cars and trucks. Ford was the best-selling individual brand for the sixth straight year, with sales of just over 2.5 million. Volkswagen sales, meanwhile, fell 5 percent after the company admitted in September that its diesel cars cheated on U.S. emissions tests.

SUV LOVE AFFAIR: Small SUVs became the largest segment of the market, at 14 percent, beating out small and midsize cars, KBB said.

FUEL EFFICIENCY BLUES: Low gas prices also have a victim: Small cars, hybrids and electrics. Toyota Prius hybrid sales, for example, fell 11 percent to around 185,000. Subcompact cars were also hurting.