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Fuel economy: Auto fleet average starts to climb

Gas prices continue their relentless climb and consumers are reacting.

Small cars were the hottest segment of auto sales last month.

About 24% of the vehicles sold last month were small cars, according to Erich Merkle, the sales analyst at Ford Motor Co. That compares to less than 20% just two months ago, he said.

The consumer move toward purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles appears to be more than just a reaction to gasoline price spikes. It is a much longer trend.

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The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute tracks how many of each model are sold each month and punches the Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings for those vehicles into a spreadsheet to calculate a fleet average.

Shoppers in February purchased light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks) that averaged 23.7 miles per gallon, a full mile per gallon above the same month a year ago and up from 20.4 mpg in February 2008.

Since the data is sales weighted, it reflects how the mix of vehicles sold is changing.

Expect these numbers to show bigger gains in future months and into next year as gas prices continue to climb and more stringent federal fuel economy regulations come into play.

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The average national gas price for regular fuel stood at $3.767 a gallon Monday, up almost 8 cents from last week and more than 27 cents from a year ago, according to the Automobile Club of America.

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