NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The Big Three U.S. automakers all reported strong March sales, as buyers flocked to dealerships in numbers not seen in years to buy everything from fuel-efficient small cars to large pickups.

When other automakers report March sales later Tuesday, it is expected to cap the best quarter for auto sales in the United States since early 2008, before the combination of a gas price spike and the meltdown in financial markets devastated sales and nearly led to the end of the U.S. auto industry.

Overall industry wide sales are expected to come in at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate above 14 million vehicles for the month as it did in both January and February. The only month to reach that level from mid-2008 through the end of last year was in August 2009, when sales spiked due to the "Cash for Clunkers" program.

The strong start to the year has led some analysts to raise their sales targets to nearly 15 million vehicles for 2012, up from 12.8 million last year. That's a much faster rebound to that benchmark than analysts anticipated even as recently as last year.

The strong sales came even as gas prices rose steadily throughout February and March, with a gallon of gas at nearly $4 by the end of last month, a record high for the time of year.