Australians bought a record number of cars, trucks and buses in the first quarter of 2007, according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI).

Official sales data compiled by auto industry statistician VFACTS showed that 255,068 vehicles were sold in the first three months of the year – up 20,463 or 8.7% on the same period of 2006 and surpassing the previous record for the quarter, set two years ago, of 237,000.

March sales were also an all-time record for the month at 94,392 – up 8.3% year on year.

“By any measure it’s a remarkably strong start to the year and one that has probably taken even the optimists in our industry slightly by surprise,” said FCAI chief executive Peter Sturrock.

“Consumers appear to have shaken off any lingering concerns about fuel prices and interest rates and have responded enthusiastically to the intensely competitive prices being offered in dealerships.”

The FCAI is forecasting total sales this year of 970,000.

Sturrock said growth was being experienced in almost every segment of the market, large as well as small.

Sales of family cars in the large passenger vehicle segment grew an encouraging 4.7% last month compared to March 2006.

The segment was boosted by strong sales of General Motors’ Holden Commodore, which was Australia’s best-selling model with sales of 5,752, and the locally-made Toyota Aurion (Camry V6) with 2,037 sales.

“The strong domestic sales of Australian-made Holdens and Toyotas is a welcome addition to the export growth those car makers are achieving,” said Sturrock.

The fastest-growing sales segment was small passenger cars, which added 8,532 sales or 16.7% in the first quarter.

Light car sales grew by 3,334 or 11.9%, SUV compact by 2,851 or 22.2% and SUV medium by 1,617 or 4.7%.

Sales in the pick-up/cab-chassis 4×4 segment grew by 4,614 or 30.0% in the first quarter.

“Australians still have a desire and practical need for bigger vehicles and the rebound in SUV sales and 4×4 pick-up sales reflects that,” noted Sturrock.

Toyota was Australia’s most popular brand in March with 21,390 sales ahead of Holden (13,454) and Ford (10,074).

Year-to-date Toyota has 22.0% of the market, from Holden (14.3%) and Ford (10.7%).

Brands experiencing strong growth in the first quarter included Mazda with a 7.9% share (up from 7.1), Nissan with 6.6 (up from 5.1), Mitsubishi with 6.2 (up from 5.5) and Honda also on 6.2 (up from 5.5).