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.
“I think day-to-day business is the best it’s been in five years,” said Tim Parker, owner of a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram dealership in Hot Springs, Ark.
Total sales in March reached 1.45 million, the highest monthly total for the industry since August, 2007, according to AutoData.
Sales at Ford and GM each rose around 6 percent in March. GM reported big increases for Buick and Cadillac, both of which have new small cars, while Ford's Fusion sedan and Escape SUV both reported record monthly sales.
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.
But Chrysler’s Jeep brand was down 13 percent from last year. The Toledo-built Wrangler was the top-selling Jeep in March, up 3 percent from last March to 12,901. It was the model’s best March since 2007. For the year, Wrangler sales are up 7 percent, but weak sales of the discontinued Liberty dragged on Jeep.
Chrysler said its dealers have sold 7,605 Libertys this year, down 81 percent from 2012. The Toledo Assembly Complex built the last Liberty in August.
Its successor, the Jeep Cherokee, isn’t expected in dealer showrooms until the third quarter.
Honda’s sales rose 7 percent thanks to strong demand for the Accord and the new Acura RDX crossover.
Toyota said its sales were up 1 percent. Sales of the updated Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES sedans doubled over last March, making up for double-digit losses for the Prius hybrid and Camry sedan.
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.
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 to end the year on a high note.
But this year had additional incentives for buyers. Fuel prices ended the month lower than a year ago.
The number of Americans seeking jobless benefits fell to a five-year low during March. Interest rates are low. And the stock market closed the first quarter with the S&P 500 at an all-time high.
New cars also are 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.
After seeing the pace of March auto sales, Edmunds raised its full-year U.S. sales forecast from 15 million to 15.5 million. That’s still below the high of almost 17 million in 2005.