Consumers flocked to car dealerships last month as they scrambled to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with more efficient cars, encouraged by a strengthening economy, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

“The combination of credit availability, an improving economy, pent-up demand and even high fuel prices encouraging people to acquire newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles are all helping to drive industry sales,” said Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s U.S. sales chief.

Chrysler Group said its U.S. sales rose 34% in March to 163,381 vehicles compared with the same month a year ago. It was Chrysler’s best monthly sales in four years.

Analysts believe that by the time all the automakers report Tuesday (April 3), the industry will have logged sales of about 1.5-million cars in March, more than it has in any month since 2007.

That’s prompted auto analyst Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com to raise his annual sales forecast to 14.5-million vehicles, which would make 2012 the best year since 2007, when Americans purchased 16.3-million autos.

An improving job market and the rally on Wall Street are providing buy signs for consumers, he said.

“Look at the stock market. There is a strong correlation between the Dow Jones industrial average and car sales. It is like a green light for car purchases,” Toprak said.

Easier credit is also helping people to purchase cars.

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