Detroit automakers headed an impressive global sales performance in April, driven by their most fuel-efficient vehicles as rising oil costs pushed consumers toward smaller vehicles, and supply shortages in Japan continued to haunt their largest international rivals. 

General Motors (GM) said its sales climbed 27% in April to 232,538 from a year ago, led by its new and more fuel-efficient passenger cars and crossovers, particularly the Chevrolet Cruze and record sales of the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain compact crossovers.

The performance is trending upward from its solid performance in 2010, during which GM posted its first profit since 2004. Its peers in Detroit, including Chevrolet and Ford (F), are also experiencing a sharp uptick in demand, with Ford last week booking its best first-quarter profit in 13 years and Chevrolet on Monday revealing its first quarterly profit in five years.

Japanese automakers, who have been struggling to rebound from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in that country, fared far worse. Toyota (TM) has delayed production several times among supply shortages and warned of weak quarterly results. Honda, meanwhile, said on Monday it anticipated significant shortages of its most popular cars in the U.S., including the Civic, until at least next year.

Toyota said its sales slipped 2.4% in April from the year-earlier period to 159,540 units, with passenger car sales down 5.1% to 77,512. 

As with its American rivals, Toyota’s fuel-efficient cars such as the Camry and Camry Hybrid led April sales with a year-over-year improvement of 5%, though its luxury brand Lexus slumped 17.8%. TMS hybrids also lowered the results, dropping 8.8% from the same period in 2010.

Rebounding Detroit

Sales of new GM vehicles launched since June 2009 led its improvement in April sales, jumping a whopping 76% from the same month in 2010. April deliveries to commercial accounts rose 21% during the month, marking just over a year of sequential gains.

Retail sales, those sold directly to individual customers, increased 25%, with cars and crossovers up 49% and 28%, respectively. The Cruze, which replaced the Chevrolet Cobalt, ticked 180% higher than its predecessor.

“Recently, rising fuel prices have led many to re-think their vehicle choice,” said Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales operations. “Because of the investments we've made in fuel-efficiency and global product architectures, the company is well positioned to meet these needs.”

The more oil dependent cars, such as its Chevrolet Silverado, Avalanche and GMC Sierra, saw retail sales slip 2% from the year-earlier period, though pickup trucks year-to-date are up 26%.

In light of the results and optimistic outlook, analysts polled by Thomson Reuters bumped their averaged view for GM’s first-quarter profit by a penny to 93 cents a share. UBS (UBS) on Tuesday slapped a buy rating on GM from neutral and raised its price target to $42 from $35, after predicting GM will experience gains related to Japanese-related inventory shortages.

A day after booking its first profit since filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009, Chrysler said on Tuesday it achieved its best April sales since 2008, with retail sales climbing 37% from the year-earlier period, its 13th-consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains. Total sales grew 22% to 117,225.

While smaller vehicles such as its 2012 fiat 500 grew a whopping 76%, mid-size sedans were Chrysler’s highest since March 2008. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Compass yawned the rising cost of oil, posting 189% and 181% sales improvements, respectively, while Dodged climbed 14% with the help of its new 2011 Dodge Avenger mid-size sedan.

“Both our retail car and truck sales were up significantly in April as we continued to build upon our sales growth momentum on the heels of a solid first quarter,” said Fred Diaz, chief executive of the Ram Truck brand. 

Ford, which recently reported a first-quarter profit of $2.8 billion, said its April sales jumped 16% to 189,778 from the year-earlier period, led by a 26% increase in car sales, particularly its Fusion, which set an April sales record. The automaker’s more fuel-efficient vehicles grew 16% in April, making up 686,498 of total sales.

“With gasoline prices eclipsing $3.90 a gallon, consumers are placing an even higher priority on fuel efficiency in every size and kind of vehicle,” said Ken Czubay, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service.

But it’s not just hybrids and small cars. Despite troubling gas prices, Ford Explorer sales climbed a whopping 138% and Fusion hit a record high, while commercial fleet customers powered Ford truck sales 11%.

Follow Jennifer Booton on Twitter at @Jbooton