DETROIT — Small cars sold big in February.
With gasoline prices spiking 30 cents last month, demand soared for compact cars like the Focus and Civic. That lifted U.S. sales for Ford, Honda and other major automakers that reported February sales on Thursday.
Gasoline — which now average $3.74 per gallon — has sent more buyers looking for fuel-efficient vehicles.
Erich Merkle, Ford's top U.S. sales analyst, says small cars made up around 19 percent of industry sales in December. That rose to 21 percent in January and could go as high as 24 percent in February, once final sales are tallied.
Other trends are also helping sales. The average car on U.S. roads is now a record 10.8 years, so there is an increasing need to replace older vehicles. Credit availability is improving, bringing more people back into the market. Japanese automakers have largely recovered from last year's earthquake and now have more cars to sell. And consumer confidence rose dramatically in February, making people more likely to consider a big-ticket purchase.
That could add up to a third straight year of improving sales for the industry. Sales bottomed in 2009 during the financial crisis, but rose the next two years.
January started strong as sales hit an annual rate of 14.2 million. That pace could accelerate in February. Toyota's U.S. sales chief projected that it could hit 15 million, the best in almost four years. Last year's sales reached 12.8 million.
Big winners last month were Volkswagen and Chrysler.
Volkswagen sales rose 42 percent, led by the redesigned Passat midsize sedan. Chrysler sales jumped 40 percent. The tiny Fiat 500 had its best month ever, but sales were strong across the company's lineup. Ram pickup sales climbed 21 percent. And sales of the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan more than quadrupled from a year earlier.
Ford sales rose 14 percent, mostly on demand for the Focus. Its sales more than doubled to 23,350, making it the best February for the car in 12 years.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. each showed further signs of recovering from last year's model shortages caused by the March earthquake in Japan. Toyota sales rose 12.4 percent, while Honda was up 12.3 percent. Honda's Civic compact was up almost 42 percent to more than 27,000 vehicles. It likely was the top-selling compact last month.
At GM, sales of the Chevrolet Cruze compact rose 10 percent to top 20,000 for the month, while the new Chevy Sonic subcompact saw its best sales month ever at almost 8,000. The strength of those sales helped General Motors, which was expected to see sales drop. Instead, it eked out a 1 percent increase.
Consumers continued to pay higher prices for cars in February, mainly because they're buying well-equipped small cars, according to the TrueCar.com automotive website.
Vehicles sold for an average of $30,605 last month, up almost 7 percent from a year earlier, TrueCar said.
Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai each reported record February sales. Nissan was up 15.5 percent, while Hyundai rose 17.5 percent.