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SMALL new cars score BIG

A 2011 Nissan Rogue is shown at Gladstone Nissan, in Gladstone, Ore. Smaller cars and crossover SUVs such as the Rogue saw increased sales in April as shoppers bought more of its fuel-efficient models.

ap file photo

DETROIT — Small cars sold briskly in the U.S. last month, as gasoline prices approached $4 a gallon and some buyers worried about shortages of Japanese-made vehicles.

Analysts expected overall industry sales in the U.S. to increase 19 percent from April of last year.

Sales last month were led by highly fuel-efficient models such as Chevrolet’s Cruze, Hyundai’s Elantra and Ford’s Focus

Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of sales and marketing, said consumers shifted into smaller cars starting in March and the trend continued in April. Unlike 2008, when a rise in gas prices caught the industry off-guard, GM and other companies now have good small cars and can quickly boost production of them, he said.

“We’re probably the best prepared ever for this shift," he said.

The average price of a gallon of gas this week is $3.96, up $1.06 from last year.

While widespread vehicle shortages related to the March 11 earthquake in Japan have yet to hit the U.S. market, they’re expected to by the end of May.

So far, GM says the earthquake won’t affect its profit, although it has had to slow production because of a lack of parts from Japan. Chrysler Group LLC said this week that the earthquake will cost it between 50,000 and 100,000 vehicles this year, but it won’t have an impact on earnings.

Hyundai Motor Co.’s sales jumped 40 percent, largely because of fuel-efficient models such as the Elantra, which gets an estimated 40 mpg on the highway.

General Motors Co. sold more than 25,000 Chevrolet Cruze compact models in April, the best performance for the 36-mile-per-gallon car since it was introduced in October. Ford said sales of its new Focus compact rose 22 percent from last year.

GM said its U.S. car and truck sales jumped 26 percent in April. Ford Motor Co. said its U.S. sales rose 13 percent. Chrysler’s sales rose 22 percent to 117,225, the company’s best April in three years.

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