The US new car market is on the brink of a consumer preference shift to the compact segment, General Motors’ top sales analyst has said.

“There’s definitely going to be a time when the (Chevrolet) Cruzes of the world are the top selling cars in this market,” Don Johnson told WardsAuto.com. “It could well happen in 2012.”

Chevrolet recently began building the Korean designed Cruze at its Lordstown, Ohio plant in the US and this week, at its Orion Township plant in Michigan, started local production of the subcompact [B segment in Europe] Sonic, known as the Aveo elsewhere, as well.

The Cruze is also built by Holden in Australia but other global supplies continue to come from GM Korea. GM is also gearing up to launch the next generation Malibu, yet another GM Korea product, which will replace the current mainly-US, domestically-designed model and, this time, be built in Korea as well and sold worldwide. 

A US consumer move to compacts would end midsize-segment dominance that has spanned four decades, according to Ward’s.

The Cruze was the best-selling car in the US in June but not July, pipped by longtime consumer favorite, the midsize Toyota Camry, with 27,016 deliveries just months before its redesigned replacement goes on sale.

Climbing fuel prices are compelling consumers to consider a change in their buying habits, Johnson told Ward’s during a conference call outlining GM’s July sales performance.

The automaker booked 214,915 light vehicle deliveries, up 11.8% year on year, according to Ward’s data.

The C-segment Cruze accounted for 24,648 sales – second in GM line after the full size Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, GM’s volume flagship and a perennial sales leader in the total US light vehicle market.

With the average national per gallon price of regular grade petrol trending nearly US$1 higher than a year ago at $3.70, according to the American Automobile Association, consumers are seeking relief by downsizing, Johnson told Ward’s.

Packaging and powertrain innovations result in less compromise and more benefits forbuyers than in previous years, he added.

The Cruze has 110cu ft (3.1cu m) of interior volume, compared with its predecessor, the US-designed Chevrolet Cobalt, which offered 99.9cu ft (2.8cu m).

Highway fuel economy rating of 42mpg (5.6l/100 km) compares with 37mpg (6.4l/100 km) for the old Cobalt.

Upper small cars last dominated the US car market in the 1980s, according to Ward’s. Five times during that decade a compact model topped the list of the nation’s best sellers, with the Ford Escort achieving the feat last in 1988.

Though GM’s July mix favoured light trucks over cars, 134,840 deliveries to 80,075, the automaker’s car sales outgained its light truck tally 12.3% to 11.5%, according to Ward’s data.