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Pickups carry the load for March vehicle sales

Lured by offers, firms replacing aging trucks

March is turning out to be the best month for auto sales in at least six years. Some analysts say the automakers may have to add production capacity to keep up.

Nati Harnik /Associated Press

March is turning out to be the best month for auto sales in at least six years. Some analysts say the automakers may have to add production capacity to keep up.

DETROIT — America is getting back to work, and it needs pickup trucks.

Strong demand in March for trucks drove US vehicle sales to the highest monthly total since August 2007, as everyone from oil producers to home builders raced to replace aging trucks they had held onto during the recession. Overall, sales rose 3.4 percent from March of last year.

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March is typically a good month for the auto industry. Many buyers put their tax refunds 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.

This year offered additional incentives for buyers. Fuel prices ended the month lower than a year earlier.The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell to a five-year low in March. Interest rates are low. And the stock market — a strong predictor of auto sales — closed the first quarter with the S&P 500 at a record high.

New cars are also enticing buyers. The newly redesigned Nissan Altima outsold Toyota’s Camry, the perennial mid-size king, by 100 vehicles in March. That had not happened since May 2011. The redesigned Honda Accord also came close to outselling the Camry, which was last redesigned in 2011.

But pickups 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 earlier. 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 since August 2007, AutoData says.

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Pickup truck sales should keep increasing at least into early next year, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, aforecasting firm.

Automakers are offering big discounts, especially as GM tries to clear out older models before the debut of its 2014 pickups this spring.

Edmunds.com, a car-buying site, estimates 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 US sales forecast to 15.5 million from 15 million. That would still be below the high of almost 17 million in 2005, but nearly 50 percent better than 10.4 million in 2009.

Some analysts say automakers will have to increase production and hire more workers.

They have added 125,800 jobs since February 2010, a nearly 20 percent increase in industry employment, according to the Department of Labor.

‘‘We’re going to need more capacity,’’ said Erich Merkle, Ford’s top US sales analyst. Ford plans to increase production in North America by 9 percent in the second quarter.

But after downsizing during the recession, companies are wary of adding factory space, fearing the cost of having too much if the economy heads south. GM has no plans to increase production because its factories can handle the expected slow-and-steady growth.

Sales at Ford and GM each rose about 6 percent in March.

Toyota said sales were up 1 percent.

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 US 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.

Hyundai’s sales fell 2 percent from March 2012, its highest sales month ever.

Honda sales rose 7 percent on demand for the Accord and the new Acura RDX crossover.

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