Sales at U.S. retailers rose more strongly than expected in March as consumer stepped up purchases of vehicles and wide range of goods, government data showed on Wednesday, suggesting a broadening of the manufacturing-led economic recovery.

The Commerce Department said total retail sales jumped 1.6 percent, the largest increase since November, from an upwardly revised 0.5 percent rise in February. Sales in February were previously reported to have gained 0.3 percent.

Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales increasing 1.2 percent last month. Compared to February last year, sales were 7.6 percent higher.

Motor vehicle and parts purchases surged 6.7 percent last month, the biggest rise since October, after dropping 1.9 percent in February.

Consumers are defying high unemployment and tight access to credit to spend, offering hope that the recovery from the worst economic downturn in 70 years will continue when the lift from government stimulus and the swing in the inventory cycle ebbs.

Growing confidence in the recovery, particularly brightening job market prospects, is encouraging households to tap into the savings to fund purchases of goods, including luxury items.

Excluding motor vehicles and parts, retail sales rose 0.6 percent in March after rising 1.0 percent the prior month as a combination of an early Easter holiday and warm weather boosted receipts at clothing stores. Economists had expected a 0.5 percent gain.

Core retail sales, which exclude autos, gasoline and building materials, rose 0.5 percent after increasing 1.2 percent February. Core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of the government's gross domestic product report.

Clothing and clothing accessories sales increased 2.3 percent, while building materials and garden equipment climbed 3.1 percent - the largest advance since November 2007. Receipts at sporting goods, hobby and book stores rose 1.0 percent in March. Sales at electronics and appliance stores, however, fell 1.3 percent and receipts at gasoline stations slipped 0.4 percent.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)