The 2018 VW Atlas R-Line is photographed on Raccoon Mountain Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, in Marion County, Tenn. The vehicle is produced at the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant.

This story was updated Jan. 3, 2019, at 7:44 p.m. with more information.

Hamilton County vehicle sales

The number of new vehicles licensed in Hamilton County last year fell to a 7-year low as the drop in car sales more than offset gains in truck sales by local dealers.

2018: 12,127 vehicles, including 8,098 trucks and 4,029 cars

2017: 13,034 vehicles, including 8,041 trucks and 4,993 cars

2016: 12,995 vehicles, including 7,664 trucks and 5,271 cars

2015: 13,020 vehicles, including 7,580 trucks and 5,440 cars

2014: 12,542 vehicles, including 7,036 trucks and 5,506 cars

2013: 12,200 vehicles, including 6,523 trucks and 5,677 cars

2012: 12,386 vehicles, including 6,429 trucks and 5,957 cars

2011: 10,948 vehicles, including 5,834 trucks and 5,114 cars

2010: 9,512 vehicles, including 5,070 trucks and 4,442 cars

2009: 7,939 vehicles, including 3,908 trucks and 4,031 cars

Source: Hamilton County Clerk’s Office

Despite a 32 percent drop in sales of the Chattanooga-made Passat last year, Volkswagen of America boosted overall sales during 2018 by more than doubling its sales of SUVs, including its new Chattanooga-made Atlas.

VW ended the year with a strong 5.8 percent jump in sales during December, including record sales of its Atlas and a slight upturn in Passat sales last month.

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A Volkswagen employee walks around the outside of a vehicle inspecting different parts at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Our sales over the past year showed that we're moving in the right direction in meeting consumer demand," said Derrick Hatami, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Volkswagen of America. "SUV percentage of sales more than doubled for the brand in 2018 and more than quintupled over the past five years."

Scott Keogh, CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, conceded that VW "was a little bit late to the SUV game" as American motorists have increasingly shifted from sedan passenger cars into SUVs and trucks.

"But I think we've responded very strongly," Keogh said Thursday in announcing the sales results for 2018. "We had our best Atlas sales month ever in December and our Tiguan sales totaled over 100,000 units, becoming our No. 1 seller neck and neck with the Jetta."

Volkswagen enjoyed its first full year of sales of its 7-passenger Atlas SUV last year, more than doubling sales from the previous year, and VW is preparing to add a 5-seat Atlas model this year. Both the 7-passenger and 5-passenger models of the American-oriented SUV models are made at Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant.

With gas prices falling below $2 a gallon at most U.S. service stations — and as low as $1.68 per gallon at some stations in Chattanooga Thursday — motorists are moving away from smaller passenger cars and buying more trucks.

In Hamilton County last year, more than two thirds of all vehicles sold were trucks or SUVs. A decade ago, most vehicle buyers purchased cars, not trucks.

Truck and SUV sales rose last year to the highest level since 2005 in Chattanooga, but car sales fell for the seventh consecutive year in Hamilton County.

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Dodge Ram pickup trucks are on display on the lot at Landmark Dodge Chrysler Jeep RAM Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, in Morrow, Ga. Buoyed by a resurgent economy, holiday sales, cheap gasoline and a love affair with pickup trucks, Americans headed to car dealers in droves last month, pushing full-year sales to what's likely to be the highest level since 2006. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Top sellers in 2018

U.S. sales of new cars and trucks rose 0.3 percent in 2018 to 17.27 million, automakers said Thursday.

These were the top sellers, the number sold and the percent change from 2017.

Vehicle / 2018 sales / Percent change from 2017

Ford F-Series / 909,330 / +1.4

Chevrolet Silverado / 585,581 / 0.0

Ram pickup / 536,980 / +7.2

Toyota RAV4 / 427,170 / +4.8

Nissan Rogue / 412,110 / +2.1

Honda CR-V / 379,013 / +0.3

Toyota Camry / 343,439 / -11.3

Chevrolet Equinox / 332,618 / +14.5

Honda Civic / 327,760 / -13.7

The automakers are preparing for sedan sales to shrink further in the new year. Ford sales chief Mark LaNeve said Thursday the automaker anticipates the all-new Ranger midsize pickup will offset some of the sedan sales slip. But Ford also announced Thursday it would report its sales figures quarterly rather than monthly, as it expects some volatility as it moves to prune its sedan models from the vehicle lineup.

GM sales dipped slight last year, while FiatChrysler sales rose on the back of Jeep and Ram sales, which were up 17 percent and 7 percent for the year, respectively. FiatChrysler reported the biggest yearly gain in sales among the major auto makers, but all of the manufacturers said reported a shift toward trucks among vehicle buyers.

Overall, automakers beat U.S. sales expectations in 2018, reporting an increase of 0.3 percent over a year ago to 17.27 million vehicles.

The increase came despite rising interest rates, a volatile stock market, and rising car and truck prices that pushed some buyers out of the new-vehicle market.

Industry analysts and automakers said strong economic fundamentals pushed up sales and should keep them near historic highs in 2019.

"Economic conditions in the U.S. are favorable and should continue to be supportive of vehicle sales at or around their current run rate," Ford Chief Economist Emily Kolinski Morris said after the company and other automakers announced their sales numbers Thursday.

That auto sales remain near the 2016 record of 17.55 million is a testimonial to the strength of the economy, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. The job market, he said, has created new employment, and wage growth has accelerated.

"That's fundamental to selling anything," he said. "If there are lots of jobs and people are getting bigger paychecks, they will buy more."

Rising interest rates and vehicle prices could create more headwinds for auto makers, although VW officials said they hope their revamped models and the new 5-passenger Atlas will help boost sales for VW in the year ahead.

"The picture doesn't look quite as rosy for 2019," said Jessica Caldwell, analyst with Edmunds. "While the economy is still relatively strong, rising interest rates and vehicle prices could force many buyers into the used market, or even price them out of buying a vehicle completely. If the economy weakens or tariffs push prices even higher, things could go south for the auto industry very quickly."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.

2018 vehicle sales

Among the world’s biggest auto companies, Fiat Chrysler and VW enjoyed the biggest sales gains in the U.S. market last year although they were still outsold by some of their rivals. The total vehicle sales for major manufacturers in the U.S. in 2018 were:

GM: 2.954 million, down 1.6 percent

Ford: 2.497 million, down 3.5 percent

Toyota: 2.427 million, down 0.6 percent

Fiat Chrysler: 2.235 million, up 9 percent

Honda - 1.604 million, down 2.2 percent

Nissan - 1.494 million, down 6.2 percent

Volkswagen - 354,064, up 4.2 percent

Source: Auto makers reports