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Sales of smaller cars double in a decade

Compacts and subcompacts accounted for nearly a quarter of the new vehicles sold in April, according to an auto research company. That’s double the market share from 10 years ago.

Car buyers always consider price. But these days fuel economy is also high up on the list. High gas prices are driving sales of more fuel-efficient models.

According to the auto research site , compacts and subcompacts accounted for nearly a quarter of the new vehicles sold in April. That’s double the market share from 10 years ago.

“Smaller cars are better equipped than they were a few years ago,” notes senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. “They have more amenities, so people don’t feel like they’re giving up much when they go to a smaller car.”

Caldwell says we may see fewer small car sales reported for May and June because of the limited supply of some small cars coming from Japan. That drop in production has resulted in higher prices and fewer incentives. For example, a new Honda Civic has gone up more than $1,600 since March. But Caldwell strongly believes the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles will continue as long as gas prices are high.

Even though prices at the pump are dropping a little right now, AAA says the nationwide average for a gallon of gas is still $3.78. That’s a dollar more than last year at this time. And we all know they could go up again at any time. The says there’s a good chance the nationwide average price for regular gasoline could exceed $4.00 per gallon in July.

Automakers have seen the shift in demand and are responding. The New York Times reported this week that Ford recently converted a former SUV plant to build small hybrids and electric vehicles. General Motors will soon build its first subcompact model in the U.S.

Nearly two thirds (62 percent) of the people responding to a recent say they expect to choose a model with “much or somewhat better fuel economy” than the car they already drive.

“The survey respondents said they were getting, on average, 23 miles per gallon now and they expect to get at least 29 miles per gallon from their next vehicle,” says Jeff Bartlett, deputy online auto editor at Consumer Reports. “People are willing to compromise on comfort, size and even performance to get the fuel economy they want in their next vehicle. What they won't compromise on is safety and we're glad to see that.”

Video: The trend toward cars with fuel economy

A significant number of people who plan to buy a new car or truck (58 percent) told Consumer Reports they are willing to pay more for their next vehicle to reduce their fuel bills. Bartlett calls that “somewhat surprising” in light of the current economy.

“Clearly, these people are looking at the long-term costs of owning and operating their car,” he says.

Two thirds of the vehicle owners (65 percent) surveyed said they drive less than 40 miles a day. That makes them candidates for a plug-in hybrid or electric car. But most of those responding (75 percent) said if they bought a new vehicle they would be looking for a conventional gasoline engine.

Top-rated cars that are also fuel savers
When Consumer Reports tests a new vehicle, it also measures fuel economy. The number of recommended models that also deliver great gas mileage continues to grow. Here are a few of the top-rated models in various categories.

Toyota Prius: The editors call this iconic hybrid “the clear gas-saving leader,” delivering a combined 44 mpg in its tests.

Hyundai Elantra: This compact gets an impressive 29 miles per gallon. And with a sticker price at around $18,000, the magazine calls it a bargain compared to most vehicles.

Nissan Altima: This sedan gets 26 miles per gallon and is roomy enough to fit five comfortably. The hybrid version gets 32 mpg.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid: This SUV stands out from the crowd, getting 27 miles per gallon. But its sticker price is almost $50,000.

Ford Escape Hybrid: It delivers 26 miles per gallon, but it’s only $22,000.

Subaru Outback: It's more of station wagon than an SUV, but it gets 24 miles per gallon, has all-wheel drive and a really roomy back seat.

Making it easier to find a fuel-efficient vehicle
All 2013 model cars and trucks will be required to have new . They’ve been designed to make it easier for buyers to find the most gas-stingy models and to compare vehicles with different power trains.

The sticker, unveiled last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, has a number of new features. Each vehicle will have a “fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating” from 1 to 10. Ten is the best. The label will also show how much you will save or spend extra on fuel compared to the average new vehicle for the first five years.

“This is a giant step forward in giving people information about fuel economy,” says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. "They'll be able to look at a vehicle very quickly and determine if it's an 8, 9 or a 10 that it's going to be a great choice."

These new stickers will also be required on cars and trucks with non-gasoline engines. They’ll be formatted to compare vehicles using different fuels.

You’ll also find a QR code on the sticker. Scan it with a smartphone and it will take you to an online database where you can plug in your personal driving habits to get a more accurate fuel-use estimate.