Auto sales continued a robust pace in March, boosted by consumers with more confidence in a recovering U.S. economy who want to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the face of rising gasoline prices.

Ford Motor Co's U.S. sales rose 5 percent from a year earlier. Ford, No. 2 in the U.S. market, reported its best March for new auto sales in five years on strong sales of small cars such as its Focus sedan and its F-Series pickup trucks.

Chrysler Group LLC, No. 4 in U.S. sales, reported a 34 percent increase, led by its Chrysler brand, which had a sales increase of 70 percent.

It was the 24th consecutive month that Chrysler showed a year-on-year sales gain.

Nissan Motor Co said its sales in March rose 12.5 percent, and Volkswagen AG said its March sales soared 35 percent -- its the best U.S. March sales since 1973.

Other major automakers will report March sales later on Tuesday, and most expect significant increases.

For instance, South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co, which has the best fleet-wide fuel economy ratings in the market, said it expected to have record monthly sales.

Consumer confidence rose in March to its highest level since February 2011, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan reading of consumer sentiment showed.

As sales rise -- the first quarter is expected to come in as the best quarter since 2008 -- automakers are also getting more profit per vehicle. Incentives continued to trend downward in March while the average transaction prices per new vehicle rose, autos consultant said on Tuesday.

Auto analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect an annualized sales rate for March of 14.74 million vehicles, which would be a rise from last March's 13.1 million sales rate. Analysts say pent-up demand, easier credit, more fuel-efficient product offerings and mild weather helped boost March sales.

No. 1 in U.S. and global auto sales, General Motors Co is expected to show a rise in March sales of more than 20 percent over a weak March 2011, auto consultant said.

Toyota Motor Corp, No. 3 in U.S. sales, is expected to post a rise of as much as 22 percent, Edmunds said.

Mike Jackson, chief executive of the largest auto retailer, AutoNation Corp, told CNBC on Monday that the company raised its 2012 sales forecast to about 14.5 million from 14 million, based on the strongest quarter for auto sales since before the sales downturn that began in late 2008.

(Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)