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 dealer in Hot Springs, Ark. Parker recently joined a Chrysler program that helps him stock pickups so he has inventory ready when business owners come calling.
In this March 14, photo, Matthew Miller of Omaha shops for a car in Omaha, Neb. March is turning out to be the best month for auto sales in at least six years. Major automakers including Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, General Motors and Nissan all reported increases, with some reporting their best month since the start of the Great Recession in December of 2007.
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 unemployment benefits fell to a five-year low during March. Interest rates are low. And the stock market - which is a strong predictor of auto sales - closed the first quarter with the S&P 500 at an all-time high.
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.
Small businesses and the housing industry are recovering from the recession, and automakers are offering big discounts, especially as GM tries to clear out older models before the debut of its 2014 pickups later this spring.
Edmunds.com, a car buying site, estimates that GM offered $5,800 in discounts on the Chevrolet Silverado in March, compared with $4,010 for its chief rival, Ford's F-150.
"I think the pickup truck battle is starting to heat up at the same time demand heats up," Schuster said.
After seeing the pace of March 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, but nearly 50 percent better than the 10.4 million vehicles sold in 2009.
Things look so good that some analysts think automakers will have to increase production and hire more workers to keep up.
Automakers have added 125,800 jobs since February of 2010. That's a nearly 20 percent increase in industry employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.