It feels counterintuitive. Expensive gasoline not only helped propel new-vehicle sales in the first quarter. It was a key factor in the surge.

But, according to a report in Automotive News, customers aren’t flocking from big trucks to small cars as happened four years ago when fuel prices spiked. Instead they are shopping within the same segments and snapping up newer models that get better fuel economy.

So despite $4 gasoline, consumers bought 1.4 million light vehicles in March, up 13% over March 2011 and the highest volume for any month since August 2007. What’s the attraction? New vehicles with better fuel efficiency than slightly older models of the same size.

“Fuel economy was the name of the game in March [and] the first quarter,” said Ken Czubay, Ford Motor Co.’s U.S. sales boss. “Dealers across the country told us that higher fuel prices played a larger role in customers’ choices.”

Czubay also cited the improving economy but said the availability of fuel-efficient vehicles has done the most to boost sales this year.

The March surge wasn’t a wholesale rush to small fuel-sippers as it was in 2008. Truck sales rose at about the same rate as car sales. In March, cars were up 14%, and truck sales rose 11%.

In May 2008, when fuel prices skyrocketed, cars were up 2%, and trucks plummeted 25%.

The big winners in March were models that combine much-improved fuel economy with utility, such as the Ford F series and Focus, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry and Prius.

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