Americans buy more fuel-efficient cars in February

As gasoline prices continue their relentless climb, consumers are reacting: Small cars were the hottest segment of auto sales last month.

About 24% of the vehicles sold last month in the United States were small cars, according to Erich Merkle, the sales analyst at Ford Motor Co. That was up from less than 20% in December, he said.

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

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 bought 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 last year and up from 20.4 mpg in February 2008.

The data are sales weighted, so they reflect how the mix of vehicles sold is changing.

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

Nationwide, the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.793 on Monday, up 7.2 cents from a week earlier and up 27.3 cents from a year earlier, according to the Energy Department.

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