As the U.S. gas-price trajectory trends above 2008’s peak levels, small-car sales are following suit, according to Ward’s data. But this time the industry appears ready.

The last time pump prices spiked, auto makers, particularly the Detroit Three, were enamored with high-margin light trucks. So when American consumers began abandoning SUVs in search of savings, the industry was caught off-guard.

Toyota slashed production of its Tundra fullsize pickup, GM increased its car output and Ford Group Vice President Jim Farley said he was “shocked” one month after the Blue Oval’s passenger-car lineup accounted for 62% of the auto maker’s sales.

Fast-forward to today. “We have much more flexibility than we have had previously, and we’re more dedicated to small cars,” says Jim Tetreault, Ford vice president-North America manufacturing.

And there is every indication Ford and its competitors will need flexibility to quickly adjust their production schedules.

Against a backdrop of political strife in the oil-rich Middle East and North Africa, U.S. average regular-grade gas prices rapidly are approaching the per-gallon record of $4.11, set in July 2008. Regular unleaded was selling for $3.56 this week, according to the American Automobile Assn. This time three years ago, it was $3.24.

The U.S. Energy Information Admin. is projecting prices in the range of $3.70 from April through September, peak driving season. The agency also says there is only a 25% probability the national average will exceed $4.00 this summer.

But Darin Newsom, a senior analyst with Omaha-based Telvent DTM, a commodity-information service provider, says pump prices could well eclipse 2008 levels. The reason? Prices started higher in 2011 than they did three years ago, $3.10 vs. $3.04, according to AAA data.

“We likely will test those highs from 2008 this spring,” Newsom tells Ward’s. Meanwhile, small-car market share trends are shadowing pump prices.

Through February, the segment’s share already was 18.7%, nearly two points higher than like-2008, according to Ward’s.

Responding to rising fuel prices is a key focus at Hyundai, which has the most fuel-efficient lineup in the American market, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ratings. “As we look at what’s going on, this validates our strategy and investments,” Hyundai Motor America President and CEO John Krafcik says.

But that does not preclude challenges. Hyundai already has a problem with increasing demand for cars such as the new-for-’11 Elantra compact.

“Do we have capacity to meet demand? Honestly no, we don’t,” Krafcik tells Ward’s. “Are we working on it and will we be able to this year? Yes, absolutely.”

The Elantra is assembled at the auto maker’s plant in Montgomery, AL. Also home to the Hyundai Sonata midsize car, the site has an annual capacity of 300,000 units.

On paper, the industry as a whole seems capable of handling a hike in small-car demand, according to Ward’s data.

Toyota, Honda and Nissan have considerable capacity in North America. But the trickle-down effects of last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan are unknown.

The island nation is the sole source of popular U.S.-market small cars such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Mazda3. But Japan’s vehicle production is at a standstill this week.

General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, OH, home to the Chevrolet Cruze compact car, currently is running below capacity. Later this year, the auto maker will launch production of the all-new Chevrolet Sonic B-car and Buick Verano C-car at its plant in Orion Twp., MI, which has an installed capacity of 200,000 vehicles annually, according to Ward’s data.

“We believe we are very well-positioned from a product standpoint,” says Don Johnson, GM’s top U.S. sales analyst.

Chrysler is just beginning to show signs of promise in the small-car sweepstakes.

The recently launched Fiat 500 is an A-segment offering. The company has said it would build some 50,000 U.S.-market units at its plant in Toluca, Mexico.

A pair of new C-segment cars are due next year, one Dodge and one Chrysler. They will be based on a version of the Fiat platform that supports the new European-market Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

A B-segment Jeep and two Fiat-based B-cars, another Dodge-Chrysler duo, are scheduled to follow in 2013.

Chastened by the market’s dramatic turn in 2008, Ford has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into making its plants more flexible. That way, the auto maker can respond more quickly to changing conditions.

The auto maker’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI, former home to the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator large SUVs, has been converted to accommodate the next-generation Focus C-car, launching now.

Further enhancing its competitiveness is the Ford Fiesta. Launched in the U.S. last year, the car has established a strong B-segment foothold.

The Fiesta’s assembly site in Cuautitlan, Mexico, has an installed annual capacity of 240,000 vehicles, according to Ward’ss, because new tooling enables round-the-clock production.

“We’re able to maximize every available hour,” Tetreault tells Ward’s, adding this wasn’t possible previously.

Adds John Felice, general marketing manager for Ford and Lincoln: “Are we better prepared as a company than two years ago? Unequivocally, yes.”

But are American consumers permanently migrating to small cars? As fuel prices tapered off following the spike in mid-2008, small car-demand dipped to 19.2% in the third quarter and 16.9% in Q4.

“As overall fuel economy improves, even with higher prices, the value of the improved (fuel) economy gets smaller and smaller,” says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor, MI-based Center for Automotive Research.

“And then you get into the details of buying, and (consumers) look at the tradeoffs with a subcompact that holds four people vs. something that holds more,” he tells Ward’s.

Some pundits argue auto makers, particularly the Detroit Three, will take a substantial bottom-line hit because vehicles such as fullsize pickups and SUVs generate higher margins.

But Krafcik remains confident. “The key is to make small cars extraordinarily appealing,” he says, while also keeping costs down.

Hyundai has developed a “signature design” that consumers “seem to like,” he says. “And when you have that, you have a great story on transaction prices.”

The new Elantra is commanding transaction prices in the $20,000 range, some $4,500 higher than the outgoing model, Krafcik says. “So there’s money to be made. Absolutely.”

The American consumer’s migration to small cars is genuine, he adds. “Even before issues in Libya, we’ve seen this and predicted this,” Krafcik insists. “If you go five-10 years into the future, you’re going to see this trend more pronounced.”

bpope@wardsauto.com