The Board of Equalization, which collects sales and use taxes, released the estimates Wednesday. The board also reported final numbers for the first quarter of 2011 that show a 9 percent in taxable sales for the first quarter of last year.
The 2011 numbers show California firms reported roughly $118 billion during the year's opening quarter. That's better than sales tallies from the same period during each of the previous two years, but below the first three months of 2008.
Then, when the Great Recession was still in its opening stages, California businesses reported nearly $128 billion in taxable sales.
The Board of Equalization's numbers for the first three months of 2011 reflect both increasing commerce - especially among motor vehicle dealers - but also spiking gasoline prices.
The tax-collection agency also reported sales increases among other furniture dealers, restaurants and other retailers. One economist said high fuel prices remain a serious concern for California consumers, but other retail numbers show a real improvement in the state's economy.
"That's one of the bright spots in the local economy, that people are feeling confident enough to start spending again," Beacon Economics analyst Jordan Levine said.
California vehicle and parts dealers' sold nearly $13 billion worth of taxable goods during the first three months of 2011 while those sales 17.4 percent on a year-over-year basis.
Gasoline stations were the only other part of the state's retail sector in which sales rose by a greater rate, as a 20 percent upward surge in gas prices helped push taxable gasoline sales up by roughly 22 percent to $12.6 billion.
Rising automotive sales indicate a healthier market for car dealers than during the start of the recession, when many Inland Empire car dealerships folded after the economy soured.
"Sales started to slow in early 2008 and are picking up right now," Toyota of San Bernardino owner Cliff Cummings wrote in an email.
"This year we will have a substantial increase at Toyota of San Bernardino and that means jobs and more jobs," he added.
Ford of Upland general manager Mike Sheridan also said his dealership is benefitting from a substantial improvement in business.
"The problem is keeping your inventory stocked," he said.
For at least one dealer, Fairview Ford in San Bernardino, the 215 widening project is a greater problem than the economy, partner Nick DePasquale said.
DePasquale said the dealership is surviving even though people are either scared to drive through the freeway construction or hear false rumors of freeway closures.
Even so, he expects Fairview Ford to to do better in 12 to 18 months after freeway workers finish their tasks near his downtown San Bernardino dealership and potential economic improvements.
"We like our prospects for the future. What goes down must come up, eventually," he said.