Smaller Cars, Better Mileage: Hot Auto Trends Now – and For Years to Come

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We are becoming Europe. Or at least, more and more, our cars are resembling those purchased overseas. Considering that American drivers are facing some of the same factors that for years have shaped auto markets abroad—high gas prices, regulations mandating better mpg—the shift toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars makes perfect sense. That goes for right now, and down the road as well.

Slowly but surely, automakers have come to the realization that small economy cars will sell well in the U.S., and even be good profit-makers, just as they are in overseas markets. We all know that gas prices are high, and are likely to remain so. (Side note: When I caught some of “Sideways” on TV recently, I was reminded of how a film could be heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time — and I was also reminded of how quickly gas prices have risen. The movie came out in 2004, and at one point Paul Giamatti drives past a gas station charging a mere $1.71 per gallon. In California no less!) What with new regulations requiring improved mpg among automakers in the U.S. as well, the trend will only continue.

New data from Wards Auto shows the degree to which today’s new car buyers are finding themselves behind the wheels of vehicles with better mileage. Thus far this year, 70% of the 2012 model-year cars sold get 20 mpg or higher. That’s up from 64% for 2011 models, and under 50% as recently as ’08. Overall fuel economy for light vehicle purchases is up 4.5% compared to 2011.

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Small and mid-size car sales both have experienced decent increases. Small cars, with an average 29.4 mpg rating, have accounted for 19.3% of 2012 light vehicles sold, up from 18.3% the previous year, while 21.2% of new cars sold have been in the mid-size category (27 mpg), up from 19.8%. The best-selling category this year has been the crossover/utility segment, which may seem to contradict the downsizing of the American vehicle. But today’s SUVs and crossovers are not the behemoth gas-guzzlers of the past. The category, with an index rating of 22.1 mpg (3.3% better than the year before), accounts for 23.7% of all sales.

Sales of heavier vehicles with less-than-stellar fuel economy, meanwhile, have been underwhelming: Pickups have shrunk as a proportion of total sales, and large cars accounted for the smallest share of overall sales ever.

In a related trend, automakers are trying to cut weight on all kinds of vehicles, because lighter cars are more fuel-efficient cars. Ford, for instance, is incorporating aluminum into F-150 trucks, thereby dropping 700 pounds and increasing fuel economy by up to 25%.

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As automakers seek lighter and lighter cars, though, they’ll natural go for smaller and smaller cars too. The simplest way to make a car lighter, after all, is for there to be less car.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.