DETROIT – Americans bought smaller cars and SUVs in March, as higher gas prices made fuel efficiency a top priority and rising employment meant more first-time buyers bought a vehicle.

The trends lifted U.S. sales of new vehicles by 17 percent from a year earlier to 1.25 million, a healthy rate that shows the auto industry’s slow and steady recovery remains on track. The monthly sales pace, adjusted for seasonal differences and projected out for the year, came in at 13.1 million. That’s higher than last year, but still far below recent boom years when car sales hit 16 million a year.

The March 11 earthquake in Japan had little impact on sales, although automakers said supplies of some cars could be tighter as spring progresses.

General Motors, Ford, Honda and Nissan all saw double-digit increases in sales. Of major automakers, only Toyota reported a decline of 6 percent, but that was expected since Toyota’s sales last March were boosted by big incentives.

As gas prices rose, sales of more efficient cars and crossovers took off. The national average for a gallon of gas hit $3.58 this week, the highest price ever for this time of year. Gas prices have jumped 25.1 cents per gallon in the past month.

Sales of the Nissan Sentra compact car doubled over last year, while sales of the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra small cars rose a combined 55 percent. Fuel-efficient crossovers like the Ford Escape did well, too. Crossovers are sport utility vehicles built on car underpinnings so they’re more efficient and maneuverable than truck-based SUVs.

But Toprak said gas prices weren’t the whole story. Buyers always respond to new products, and it just happens that many of those products – like the Ford Fiesta subcompact and Chevrolet Cruze small car – are also the most fuel-efficient.

A healthier economy also gave buyers more confidence to walk into showrooms and walk out with a new ride. The economy added 216,000 new jobs in March, bringing the unemployment rate to a two-year low of 8.8 percent.

Larger cars, crossovers and SUVs are most hurt by the trend. Buyers seem to be moving down one vehicle size when they make a new purchase. Sales of the Chevrolet Traverse, a large crossover, fell 4.7 percent in March, while sales of the mid-size Chevrolet Equinox crossover rose 17 percent. Sales of the Ford Taurus large sedan slipped 15 percent, but the Ford Fusion midsize sedan saw its best sales month ever.

Pickup sales were down slightly, and buyers seemed to be looking for better mileage. Ford said 37 percent of F-150 customers opted for a new V-6 engine in March instead of the traditional V-8, which uses more gas. Ford’s sales gained 16 percent on the strength of new vehicles including the new Explorer crossover, which saw sales double from last March.

Chrysler Group LLC said its 31 percent sales increase was led by midsize sedans such as the Chrysler 200, which was featured in a popular Super Bowl ad Sales growth for cars outpaced trucks, but truck sales still were strong at Chrysler.


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