U.S. auto sales in March may have fallen short of economists’ predictions, but they did not disappoint. Total first quarter sales were up over 13 percent from 2011, with General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler claiming over 27 percent of the domestic market share.

“It was the best quarter since ’08,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

Economists and industry executives continued to credit the strong sales to improving availability of credit, increased demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, and good weather.

“I still think we’re dealing with a very robust vehicle sales number,” said Michael Brown, an economist for Wells Fargo. Brown is one of the few to remain skeptical about a solid industry-wide recovery.

“Personal income gains have been pretty sluggish,” Brown said. According to Brown, that was just one of several indicators that were not delivering well enough to sustain the elevated auto sales from the first quarter. “We are kind of back,” he said.

But many disagree with Brown.

William Cheney, and chief economist for Manulife Asset Management, acknowledged that while sales were at their highest in years, an SAAR of 13 million wasn’t what it could be. But, he said, there is still lots of room for growth.

“The normal expansion rate would be something closer to 16 million,” he said. And, he added, “I’m inclined to think that the second quarter is going to pick up speed.”

Toyota clocked in at just over 200,000 vehicles, joining GM and Ford in the top three sellers.

American Honda Motor Corporation, Nissan, and Chrysler were close behind with sales ranging from 126,000-163,000, respectively.

Volkswagen continued it’s expansion, selling a total of 48, 425 vehicles in March – a 30 percent year-over-year increase.

One thing everyone can agree on is that Americans are moving away from large vehicles and purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.  Despite claims of success surrounding the Ford Fusion and the Chevy Cruze, imports are still getting plenty of attention in the U.S.

“The shift in preferences is favoring imported cars,” said Joe Brusuelas, a senior economist for Bloomberg, L.P.

The top three cars of March included full size pick up trucks from Ford at over 58,000, followed by the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima, which sold just over 40,000 each.

The Ford F-150 was noted for its fuel-efficiency in 2011 by the EPA. Fuel-efficiency has been a critical consideration for consumers, according to a Ford Executive, Ken Czubay.

“Fuel economy was the name of the game in March, as it had been in the 1st quarter,” said Czubay, the Vice President of U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service. “[The Ford] Fusion had its best sales month ever,” he said.