By George Polgar

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The US auto industry ended 2014 with a 6 percent sales increase and a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate just shy of 17 million units, the best since 2006.

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An improving economy, plummeting fuel costs and the unwinding of pent-up demand from the recession, sent Americans to showrooms and online buying sites, paying an average of 3.2 percent more for their shiny new rides.

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The 12.5 percent annual surge in small and mid-sized SUVs and the 6.5 percent bump in full sized SUVs and pick-ups was good news for Chrysler and GM which posted 16 and 5 percent sales increases respectively for the year.

Ford sales declined 0.6 percent for the year despite strong sales of the Fusion sedan and Escape small SUV and excitement about the revised Mustang and new all-aluminum Ford F-150 pickup trucks.

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In 2015 watch for: Toyota’s shift from electric hybrids to hydrogen fuel cell; Cadillac’s image tune-up for its superior premium performance line-up; Volkswagen’s struggle to hit US sales targets despite critical acclaim, and the stellar performance of its cousin Audi; and big action in the pre-owned vehicle market.