DETROIT - American shoppers passed on the malls and headed to the car dealerships over Thanksgiving weekend.

Black Friday promotions - coupled with falling gas prices, low-interest loans and hot new vehicles - drove U.S. auto sales higher in November, kicking off what's expected to be a strong holiday season.

Subaru and Chrysler led the major automakers with sales increases around 20 percent on strong demand for their small SUVs. It was Subaru's best November ever and Chrysler's best November in 13 years. Subaru of America is headquartered in Cherry Hill.

Gains were also reported at General Motors (6 percent), Toyota (3 percent), Honda (5 percent) and Volkswagen (3 percent). Sales fell 2 percent at Ford, 4 percent at Hyundai, and 3 percent at Nissan.

Retail sales for the four-day holiday weekend were down from a year ago, the National Retail Federation said.

But car-buying site Kelley Blue Book estimated that 25 to 30 percent of November's new vehicle sales happened over the holiday weekend thanks to a flurry of Black Friday and month-end promotions.

New vehicle sales rose 5 percent to 1.3 million - and an annualized rate of 17.2 million - according to Autodata Corp. It was the second-fastest monthly sales pace this year, after August.

Sales are on track to end the year at around 16.5 million, said Jesse Toprak, a senior analyst with Cars.com. That's up 6 percent from 2013.

November sales were fueled by incentives, like zero-percent financing on new Chevrolets and a $3,500 credit on a new BMW. But automakers still made healthy profits as buyers loaded their vehicles with extras like navigation. As of mid-November, buyers were spending an average of $30,874 per vehicle, or $165 more than the previous record of $30,709 in October, according to consulting firms J.D. Power and LMC Automotive.

Low gas prices accelerated a trend toward SUVs. Sales of the new Nissan Rogue small SUV jumped 44 percent, while the Jeep Cherokee was up 67 percent. The Honda CR-V saw its best November ever, with sales up 38 percent to more than 32,000. Even big SUVs saw gains; sales of the eight-passenger Lincoln Navigator jumped 88 percent.

Some cars struggled to get noticed. Ford Fusion sales dropped 11 percent, while Nissan Altima sales were down 7 percent.