ATLANTA — Equifax reported  that the total number of auto loan originations in the first quarter increased by 20 percent vs. the same period last year, with March recording the largest monthly total since 2008.

March auto loan originations totaled $1.8 million, the largest monthly total since the summer of 2008. Total originations for that month also eclipsed what was recorded during the summer of 2009, when, driven by the Cash for Clunkers program, originations totaled $1.6 million.

New-vehicle originations increased 21 percent to $87 billion, while monthly total loan amounts for March stood at $33.6 billion, up from $30 billion for March 2010. Loans recorded during the month closed in on pre-recession lending levels of $37.4 billion in March 2007, according to Equifax.

"While some sectors of the economy ─ most notably housing — continue to struggle, the auto lending sector has displayed positive gains based on loosening of credit to both prime and subprime borrowers,” said Michael Koukounas, senior vice president of special client services for Equifax.

Koukounas attributed the loosening to better payment patterns on the part of consumers. According to the report, auto delinquencies and write-offs are approaching pre-recession levels as both have continued to improve in 2011.

The report also cited that March 2011 average auto loan amounts remain relatively unchanged on a year-over-year basis from March 2010. Bank, credit union, savings and loan-originated amounts increased to $18,661 from $18,463 in 2010, while auto finance company-originated amounts decreased slightly from $19,236 in 2010 to $19,013 for 2011.

New-vehicle auto loan payments (among all borrowers) for the month were slightly lower than March 2010 averages, with bank, credit union, savings and loan-originated amounts dropping $11 to $366. Auto finance company-originated amounts dropped $7 to $397.