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U.S. buyers turn away from high-mileage cars

With fuel prices now showing signs of hitting their peak are U.S. car buyers shifting focus from the high-mileage models that were quickly gaining ground earlier this year?

That’s one possible conclusion based on data collected by the University of Michigan showing that the fuel economy of the average new vehicle purchased in the U.S. last month dipped slightly from March, when fuel prices seemed to be rising that just about every other day.

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And it fits into historical American patterns.  Even when gas prices were just nudging their all-time record of $4.12 in July 2008 consumers were already starting to purchase more pickups and SUVs, while demand for hybrids was on the slide.

For April 2012, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, or UMTRI, reports the average fuel economy based on window-sticker values of new vehicles sold in the U.S. was down 0.2 miles per gallon from March. The decline appears to reflect an increase in sales of larger and less efficient trucks and crossovers that followed the slight reduction in the price of gasoline towards the end of April, according to U-M researchers. 

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The decline reversed several months of steady improvement in the mileage figures tracked by the university.  But the trend line is still aiming upward.  The average rated mileage of the vehicles sold in April was 23.9 MPG–up 3.8 MPG or 19% from the value in October 2007 when U-M began monitoring the fuel economy numbers.

The university’s Eco-Driving Index (EDI)–an index that estimates the average monthly emissions generated by an individual U.S. driver–stood at 0.81 in February 2012, which represents an improvement of 19% since October 2007. The EDI takes into account both vehicle fuel economy and distance driven, according to U-M. 

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Sales figures from April suggest American motorists remain conflicted about vehicle choice. On the one hand, sales of fuel-efficient small cars, crossovers and SUVs continued to climb – with hybrids such as the Toyota Prius in especially strong demand — but sales of larger vehicles, like the Nissan Titan pickup and Jeep Grand Cherokee, also increased as drivers looking for new vehicles opted for comfort, horsepower and more carrying capacity.