U.S. consumer sentiment surged in early January to its best level since the recession hit three years ago, as job-seekers expressed hopes that stronger economic growth will lead to better hiring in coming months.

The University of Michigan's preliminary reading of consumer sentiment rose to 103.2, the highest since November 2000, from December's 92.6 reading, according to market sources who saw the report released on Friday. That easily surpassed economists' expectations.

While companies only added 1,000 workers to payrolls in December, disappointing many expectations for a bigger gain, most economists expect the economy's healthy pace to lead to more robust hiring in coming months. Weekly claims for jobless benefits had steadily dropped in recent weeks.

The breakdown of the index showed expectations for the economy's six-month outlook jumping by nearly 10 points to 99.5, up from 89.8 the prior month. That big rise in part reflects a climb in stock indexes to nearly two-year highs.

Consumers' assessment of current economic conditions also improved sharply, to 108.9 from 97.0 the prior month. Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economists, said the improvement in the current conditions index "is entirely consistent with the drop in jobless claims."

The preliminary University of Michigan survey is based on responses from 300 households around the country each month, and the survey's results are updated at the end of the month with an additional 200 responses.