DETROIT -- Americans are going for smaller cars as gas prices march higher.
New models that get 35 mpg or better, 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 to more fuel-efficient cars was good news for Detroit and Korean automakers, which have plenty of new small cars in stock.
Chrysler Group LLC, buoyed by more than just small car sales, had its best April in three years, with sales up 22 percent. Sales were led by the Jeep brand, with a 65 percent increase.
Sales of the Toledo-made Jeep Wrangler climbed 9 percent to 9,051 units, and sales of Toledo-made Jeep Liberty rose 39 percent to 4,845 units. The Toledo-built Dodge Nitro sold 2,209 units last month, up 44 percent.
Sales also increased for others: Kia Motors' U.S. sales surged 57 percent from a year ago, Hyundai Motor Co.'s rose 40 percent, General Motors Co.'s were up 26 percent, Ford Motor Co.'s rose 13 percent, Nissan Motor Co.'s gained 12 percent, Honda Motor Co.'s rose 10 percent, and Toyota Motor Corp.'s were up 1 percent.
Overall for the industry, U.S. sales rose to 1.16 million, or 18 percent from April, 2010, when consumers were more cautious about the economy and unemployment was even higher. This April was the third straight month in which sales hit an annual rate of 13 million or more.
Although the sales pace remains below the peak of 17 million in 2005, the April gains were another sign of recovery for the industry and the economy. Just two years ago, Americans bought just 10.4 million vehicles.
While buyers are looking to downsize, Geoff Pohanka, who runs 13 dealerships in suburban Washington, cited small cars' improved design and amenities, such as satellite radio and heated leather seats.
"They're not just an econobox," he said.
Even drivers who choose bigger vehicles are downsizing. Ford said half the people who bought an F-150 pickup opted for a more efficient V-6 engine instead of a V-8.
And more than half of Chevrolet buyers, the highest level GM has ever seen, are choosing smaller, four-cylinder engines.
Sales were strong even though automakers eased up on deals. Total U.S. incentive spending fell $250 to $2,118 per vehicle from March, according to Edmunds.com. That was the lowest since October, 2005.