Toyota's Prius, which has a commanding lead in market share among hybrids, saw a 69.9% sales increase in February compared with February last year, Autodata reported.
Dealers say they believe customers are starting to take notice of gas prices in making their buying decisions, though numbers still are small.
"It's just starting," says Adam Lee, chairman of 20-dealership Lee Auto Malls in Maine. "We are not seeing a dramatic increase in sales (of hybrids and small cars), but we will."
The number of potential car buyers researching hybrids at the Edmunds.com information site nearly doubled to 400,000 from November to the end of January, in tandem with the gas price run-up.
Four out of five consumers in a Kelley Blue Book survey say that gas prices are influencing vehicle choices, up 11 percentage points from January.
Automakers say they are far more ready with fuel-efficient traditional cars, in addition to alternative-power vehicles, to handle soaring gas prices than they were in 2008, when average prices peaked at $4.11 a gallon.
"We are fairly well positioned for it," says Al Castignetti, vice president for Nissan in the U.S. With small cars, plus a bevy of new, smaller crossovers, "I have such a broad array of product offerings."
Ford Motor points to now having four models that get more than 40 miles per gallon.
Demand for four-cylinder engines has risen dramatically, says General Motors spokesman Tom Henderson, and GM is selling every one of the Volt extended-range electric cars that it can produce.
For now, most automakers aren't making big changes at factories to shift to more small or hybrid cars or making big ad buys to tout them. Says Honda spokesman Kurt Antonius, "People already perceive Honda's cars and trucks as fuel efficient, so we don't need to develop a special ad campaign during these challenging times at the pump."
Most car buyers won't make dramatic changes until gas prices pass $4 a gallon nationally, predicts Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, the country's largest new car dealership chain.
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