Gas prices lift small-car sales
Pickup drivers also seek fuel savings
DETROIT — Americans are going for smaller cars as gas prices march higher.
New models that get 35 miles per gallon or more, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, and Ford Focus, led most major automakers to stronger April sales. Even buyers of pickup trucks chose more efficient engines.
The shift was good news for Detroit and for Korean automakers, which have plenty of small cars in stock. But Toyota, struggling with supply shortages since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, reported weak sales.
Overall, US sales rose 18 percent from April of last year, to 1.16 million. It was the third straight month that sales hit an annual rate of 13 million or more.
While sales remain below their peak of 17 million in 2005, the gains were another sign of recovery. Two years ago, Americans bought just 10.4 million vehicles.
Geoff Pohanka, who runs 13 auto dealerships in suburban Washington, said buyers are impressed with small cars’ improved design and amenities, including heated leather seats and satellite radio. “They’re not just an econobox,’’ he said.
Rising gas prices make small cars more appealing, too. The average price of a gallon this week is $3.96, up $1.06 from a year ago. Gas is more than $4 per gallon in New England, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast.
In 2008, the last time gas prices spiked, the auto industry was caught off guard, said Don Johnson, a General Motors vice president. This time, he said, GM and its rivals can increase production quickly.
Even those who choose bigger vehicles are downsizing. Ford said half the people who bought an F-150 opted for a more efficient V-6 engine instead of a V-8. And more than half of Chevrolet buyers are now choosing smaller, four-cylinder engines, the highest level GM has ever seen.