Why 2017 Was a Year to Remember for General Motors

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One could argue that General Motors (NYSE: GM) has been undergoing an overhaul since its exit from bankruptcy way back in 2009. But here in 2017, a lot of the hard work has been done: Whatever might be left to fix, it's clear that GM has become a solidly profitable global powerhouse.

Something else became clear in 2017: CEO Mary Barra's much-publicized effort to "disrupt" GM before Silicon Valley does is starting to bear real fruit. With its long-range electric car shipping months before Tesla's (NASDAQ: TSLA) and its autonomous-vehicle development effort becoming harder and harder to overlook, GM in 2017 found itself getting new attention -- and upgrades -- from Wall Street.

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Here are the highlights from what will be remembered as an important year in GM's history.

January: GM surprised with upbeat guidance

While rivals like Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) began the year by issuing cautious guidance, GM bucked the trend. In a presentation in January, Barra, GM president Dan Ammann, and CFO Chuck Stevens explained why they thought GM's results in 2017 would be even better than its very good 2016 results -- even if the new-car market didn't grow.

The key? GM's line of all-new crossover SUVs. Over the past couple of years, GM has completely revamped its key models in some of the hottest segments of the market. Brand-new vehicles like the Cadillac XT5, GMC Acadia, and Chevrolet Equinox -- all car-based "crossover" SUVs -- have been racking up strong sales and delivering more profits per sale than the models they replaced.

Analysts were skeptical that GM's new crossovers would be enough to offset the effects of increasing discounts in a stalled market. But through the first 3 quarters of 2017, things have played out much as Barra and company said they would in January -- with one big twist.

March: GM announces that it's leaving Europe

That twist? GM's sale of its long-suffering German subsidiary, Opel AG, to French automaker Peugeot SA (NASDAQOTH: PUGOY). GM's decision to effectively exit the European market after years of losses, first announced in March, was a surprise -- and a daring move.

By selling Opel, GM gave up nearly all of the 1.2 million vehicle sales it made in Europe in 2016. But it also gave up the need to continue pouring capital into a region where it had lost billions -- and where it had lost hope of generating a decent operating profit any time soon.

The sale closed in July. GM took a $5.4 billion one-time charge for costs related to the sale in the third quarter.

April: Crossovers power strong first-quarter results

GM's first-quarter earnings result was an upbeat surprise. GM's net income rose 34% to $2.6 billion on strong sales of -- you guessed it -- those new crossovers, particularly in the U.S. and China.

July: GM beats estimates again

GM's second-quarter result was weighed down somewhat by slowing U.S. sales and ongoing competitive pressures in China. But again, the new crossovers helped cushion the blow: GM's $1.89 per-share result (excluding Opel) was well ahead of Wall Street's estimate.

October: A big move into electric vehicles

It had been clear for a while that GM had big plans brewing for a new line of electric vehicles beyond the well-regarded Chevrolet Bolt EV. On Oct. 2, GM spilled the beans: It will launch "at least 20" all-new all-electric vehicles over the next six years, including battery-electric and fuel-cell-powered models.

The first two of those, due by early 2019, will share some of the Bolt's technology. The battery-electric models that follow will be built on an all-new architecture, which promises longer range and lower costs -- and for GM, solid profitability.

October: GM's third quarter is... complicated

On a GAAP basis, GM's third-quarter result looked pretty grim: A net loss of about $3 billion, largely due to a huge ($5.4 billion) set of one-time charges related to the Opel sale. Excluding the effects of the Opel sale, GM did OK: Profit was down in North America after some factory downtime led to a 26% year-over-year drop in vehicles shipped, but -- once again -- strong sales of the new crossovers helped cushion the blow.

November: GM lifts the curtain on its self-driving effort

GM followed up its electric-car plan with a look into its intentions around self-driving technology in an "investor event" in late November. In a nutshell: GM is planning to roll out a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolts for use in ride-hailing service in urban areas; it expects to ramp up production of those vehicles very quickly once its software is deemed to be safer than a human driver; at its current development pace, it expects to hit that point in 2019. GM believes that it's well-positioned to gain a significant first-mover advantage with autonomous vehicles that should set it up for major profits over time.

Of note: GM expects the profits from that new self-driving mobility business to add to, rather than displace, its super-profitable sales of trucks and SUVs in the U.S. and China.

Coming in January: A new pickup and 2018 guidance

GM is expected to kick off 2018 by delivering its guidance for the year, and by formally revealing its all-new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. (GM already showed a version of the all-new Silverado at an event in Texas earlier this month.)

The trucks will begin arriving at dealers next fall. They'll be followed by all-new versions of GM's (mechanically related) midsize pickups and large truck-based SUVs. Together, the new trucks should help drive further profit increases for GM in 2019 and 2020 -- just as the new crossovers did in 2017.

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John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.