DETROIT — America is getting back to work, and it needs pickup trucks.
Strong truck demand in March drove U.S. auto sales to their highest monthly total since August 2007, as everyone from oil and gas producers to local home builders raced to replace the aging trucks they held onto during the recession. Overall auto sales rose 3.4 percent from March of last year.
March is typically a good month for the auto industry. Many car buyers put their tax refund checks toward a down payment. And Japanese automakers, whose fiscal year ends in March, often juice sales with big incentives.
But this year had additional incentives for buyers. Fuel prices ended the month lower than a year ago. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell to a five-year low during March. Interest rates are low.
New cars are also enticing buyers. The newly redesigned Nissan Altima sedan outsold the Toyota Camry, the perennial midsize king, in March by 100 vehicles. That hadn’t happened since May 2011. The redesigned Honda Accord, which went on sale at the end of last year, also came close to outselling the Camry, which was last redesigned in 2011.
But pickup trucks were the big drivers in March. GM, Ford and Chrysler sold a total of 154,722 full-size pickups, up 14 percent from a year ago. It would be the third straight month that pickup sales have outpaced overall industry sales.
Total sales in March reached 1.45 million, the highest monthly total for the industry since August 2007, according to AutoData.
Pickup truck sales should keep increasing through this year and at least into early next year, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area forecasting firm.
After seeing the pace of March sales, Edmunds.com, a car buying site, raised its full-year U.S. sales forecast to 15.5 million from 15 million. That’s still below the high of almost 17 million in 2005, but nearly 50 percent better than the 10.4 million vehicles sold in 2009.
Sales at Ford and GM each rose around 6 percent in March. GM reported big increases for Buick and Cadillac, which both have new small cars, while Ford’s Fusion sedan and Escape SUV both reported record monthly sales. Ford’s Lincoln was down 23 percent.
Toyota said its sales were up 1 percent. Sales of the new Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES sedans doubled over last March, making up for double-digit losses for the Prius hybrid and Camry sedan.
• Chrysler’s sales rose 5 percent thanks to a 25 percent increase for the Ram pickup and big gains for the Dodge Avenger and Challenger sedans.
• Nissan’s sales gained 1 percent to 137,726, its highest ever monthly U.S. sales. Sales of the Leaf electric car reached 2,236 – almost 300 percent more than last year – after Nissan lowered its price.
• Volkswagen’s sales were up 3 percent thanks to strong sales of the Beetle small car and CC sedan.
• Hyundai’s sales fell 2 percent from March of last year, which was the automaker’s highest sales month ever. Elantra compact sales were up 33 percent, but sales of the company’s top-selling car, the Sonata, plunged more than 22 percent.
• Honda’s sales rose 7 percent thanks to demand for the Accord and the new Acura RDX crossover.