US car buyers downsizing as gas prices bite

Analysis of US car sales figures in March has shown that the trend towards small vehicles in a country renowned for its gas guzzlers is picking up pace faster than ever.

American car sales rose last month, surprising some analysts who believed they would fall, with figures from automakers and third party analysts showing that it was small, fuel-efficient models which were responsible for much of the rise.

The soaring price of gasoline helped push US buyers towards smaller vehicles, with calculating that a 26 percent jump in sales of subcompact and compact cars occurred in March.

Ford, which overtook GM last month as the most popular automaker in the US (by monthly sales), said that demand for its fuel-efficient vehicles was up by 19 percent last month.

“With gasoline prices eclipsing $3.50 a gallon, consumers are placing a high priority on fuel efficiency in every size and kind of vehicle," said Ford executive Ken Czubay.

Figures from the automakers showed that both the Ford Fiesta and Ford Fusion set sales records in March, while sales of the Chevrolet Cruze compact were up 287 percent over the model it replaced and sales of the Toyota Prius hybrid were up 52 percent.

The shift in car-buying patterns has been reflected in the deals automakers are offering consumers - the average spent on "incentives" by automakers dropped 8.6 percent ($220) between February and March 2011, as small cars have a much lower rate of discounting.

According to, automakers spent $4,619 on incentives for large vehicles large month, and only $1,055 on subcompact vehicles.

All this, of course, is good news for the environment, and with traditionally-low gasoline prices in the US now well over $3.50 a gallon (approximately $0.92 a liter), warnings that figures could rise to $4 a gallon ($1.05 a liter) over summer could mean that America's new penchant for smaller cars is here to stay.