Consumers who are making on-time payments have helped the recent gains in the auto lending sector, according to Equifax.

In its May 2011 National Credit Trend Report released July 5, the company reported the total number of auto loan originations for the first quarter 2011 increased by 20% over first quarter 2010 levels.

March’s auto loan originations represented $1.8 million, the largest monthly total since summer 2008 and eclipsed monthly totals of $1.6 million driven by the Cash for Clunkers program in summer 2009, according to Equifax.

That same month, the average auto loan amounts among all borrowers was $18,661 at banks, credit unions and savings and loan institutions compared to $18,463 in March 2010. New auto loan payments among all borrowers in March were slightly lower than March 2010’s averages of $366 at banks, credit unions and S&Ls versus $377.

Equifax reported the average loan amount for prime borrowers is now approximately equal to or slightly higher than pre-recession levels. Auto delinquencies and write-offs are also approaching pre-recession levels with both continuing to improve this year, the firm noted.

“While some sectors of the economy–most notably housing–continue to struggle, the auto lending sector has displayed positive gains,” said Michael Koukounas, senior vice president at Equifax.