US consumers resumed spending in March, snapping up cars ahead of the summer driving season and pushing the US retail sector to its biggest gains in 18 months. 

The unexpectedly strong month for the key retail sector helped recover losses after December's worrisome slump, according to the US Commerce Department. 

The sector's performance pointed to resilience in consumption by ordinary members of the public – a main driver of the world's largest economy.

It should support GDP growth in the first quarter, which is nevertheless expected to be weaker than the final quarter of 2018.  

Total retail sales in the US rose 1.6% to $514.1 billion, well above the 0.9% economists had been expecting. 

The result put the retail sector 3.6% above March of last year. 

Car sales zoomed 3.1% higher, also the strongest showing in a year and a half, after a 0.1% dip.

Excluding the volatile car sector, sales rose by a slower 0.9%, although this was still above expectations.  

US department stores sales were flat and electronics retailers reported only token gains after February's declines. Electronics retailers are now down 2.7% year-on-year. 

Nevertheless, Americans in March also bought more clothing, furniture and groceries than in February and resumed shopping online after a soft patch. 

Analysts said that GDP growth estimates were likely to be revised upwards in light of the new numbers today.