Buckle Up: Auto Sales Surge in March

March auto sales gave the latest indication the steady growth of the American economy is prompting more buyers to go back into showrooms for a new car, truck, or utility vehicle.

Several automakers posted their best monthly sales since early 2007 with particularly strong sport utility and crossover utility vehicle sales.

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"The positives still outweigh any of the negatives out there," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales for General Motors. "Housing, jobs, consumer credit, stock market performance are all leading to some good business."

March Auto Sales

  • Ford: Up 5.7% vs. estimates of up 3.8% (236,160 vehicles)
  • GM: Up 6.4% vs. estimates of up 8.8% (245,950 vehicles)
  • Chrysler: Up 5.0% vs. estimates of up 5.9% (171,606 vehicles)
  • Toyota: Up 1.0% vs. estimates of up 0.7% (205,342 vehicles)
  • Nissan: Up 1.0% vs. estimates of up 2.8% (137,726 vehicles)

Pick-up Demand Growing

With the U.S. housing market improving, demand for new full-size pick-ups also increased in March. Ford sold 67,513 F-Series pick-ups in March, the best March and first-quarter sales for the truck since 2007.

General Motors sales of large pick-ups were up 6 percent last month. The company's inventory of trucks grew to 177 days from 97 days in February as GM continues to balance how many of the current generation full size trucks to build before it rolls out the next-generation of trucks in a few months.

"We have been working this plan for about 17 months now. Our pickup sales are up 21 percent in the first quarter. We still feel that we are in a very good place and working a very good plan," said McNeil.

(Read More: Bye-Bye Minivans, Sales Slump While CUVs Surge)

Tesla Leads EV Sales

Perhaps the most interesting development with March auto sales involved the battle among electric vehicles. Tesla's Model S, which costs more than the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF, outsold both of those models.

EV sales in Q1

  • Model S 4,750
  • Volt 4,244
  • LEAF 3,539

The Nissan LEAF had its best monthly sales in March since it was launched. Sales of 2,236 LEAF models last month was fueled in part by the company rolling out a lower-priced 2013 model.

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By comparison, Chevy Volt sales plunged 35.4 percent last month. Tesla shares continued climbing on Tuesday morning, hitting an all-time high of $44.13. On Monday, the electric car company raised its first quarter guidance and said it will be fully profitable this quarter.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews