Auto sales in the U.S. picked up to the fastest rate in four years strengthened by the climb in sales of fuel-efficient vehicles as gasoline prices continued to surge.

Auto sales rose 16 percent last month. While Chrysler Group reported that its sales were up 40 percent from February 2011, while Ford Motor Co. said that it made a gain of 14 percent. Both Toyota and Honda each reported gains of 12 percent and sales of Nissan increased by 16 percent. Volkswagen, BMW, Mazda, Kia, Suzuki and Jaguar Land Rover each reported increases of more than 30 percent. General Motors Co. said Thursday its February U.S. sales rose 1.1 percent.

All this good news came even as gas prices have risen for 23 consecutive days, according to the American Automobile Association motor club. Here the point to be noted is that customers were going ahead with buying cars, but more and more are opting for smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

According to the industry research firm Autodata, sales of small cars rose 27 percent in February. Toyota said it sold 63 percent more hybrid cars. Also it is shipping two new versions of its Prius hybrid to dealerships.

The companies are optimistic for the coming months in 2012. “We do not believe that short-term fluctuations in pump prices will curtail industry growth in 2012,’’ said Don Johnson, GM’s vice president for U.S. sales. “That’s because consumers and the overall economy are in much better shape than they were a year ago,” he added. GM sales of the fuel-efficient Chevrolet Sonic and Chevrolet Cruze are increasing.

Chrysler posted the best February in four years and it was certainly made possible by the better gas mileage offered by many of its vehicles. Our product portfolio now contains some of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in our company's history, driving our sales up 40 percent in February, Chrysler's U.S. sales chief Reid Bigland said.

Sales of fuel-efficient cars also helped Ford. Sales momentum built as February unfolded, with higher fuel prices driving consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles in the second half of the month, said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president for U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service, in a statement.