That's three profitable years in a row for General Motors (GM -1.85%).

The company announced on Thursday that it earned $1.19 billion in the fourth quarter, or $0.48 a share after several one-time items were excluded.

That fell short of the $0.51 a share expected by Wall Street analysts, as losses in Europe were somewhat wider than expected. But while GM "missed," the result was a considerable improvement over the $0.28 a share GM earned in the year-ago quarter.

Mixed results in GM's regional units
As we saw with GM arch-rival Ford's fourth-quarter earnings report last month, North America – specifically, the U.S. auto market – is the biggest key to GM's profitability at the moment. Elsewhere in the world, GM's results were decidedly mixed.

North America earned $1.4 billion before taxes in the fourth quarter, down a bit from the $1.5 billion earned in the year-ago quarter. While GM's U.S. sales were up 4.4% in the quarter over year-ago results, GM's average transaction prices were down a bit, according to analyst Jesse Toprak at

Part of the problem was an oversupply of pickups as GM geared up to launch its all-new models, leading to an uptick in incentives spending toward the end of the quarter. But the larger issue is that GM simply lacks the pricing power (and thus the margins) of key rivals such as Ford at the moment. New models – and GM has a slew of debuts planned for 2013 – should help that problem somewhat over the next several quarters.

South America made $99 million before taxes, up from a loss of $225 million a year ago. GM's biggest market in the region is Brazil, which accounts for about 60% of GM's overall South American sales. The company made a big effort to up its game in the region in 2012, introducing seven new models in Brazil and taking steps to streamline its operations there.

Europe continues to be the biggest challenge facing GM. The General's European operation, which includes German automaker Adam Opel AG, lost $700 million before taxes, up from about $600 million a year ago. Few automakers doing business in Europe have escaped losses, as auto sales in the recession-ravaged region fell to a 19-year low in 2012. For the full year, GM's losses in Europe totaled $1.8 billion, at the high end of the range given in the company's guidance in October.

GM's international operations division, which includes major operations in China, India, and Russia, earned $473 million before taxes, up from $373 million a year ago. GM had a solid year in China, the world's largest car market, where it posted a 11% sales gain. That was enough for GM to hold on to the country's sales crown in 2012 despite mounting pressure from Volkswagen.

Outlook for 2013: continued improvement
2013 is on track to be a big, big year for GM. A slew of important new products are set to debut, including all-new full-sized pickups, a new Chevy Impala, and a replacement for the CTS, Cadillac's bread-and-butter midsized luxury sedan.

Each of those debuts will require careful execution in marketing and manufacturing and logistics, and the potential for chaos is high. It will be a real test of new, improved GM's ability to execute – and the company's success (or lack thereof) in managing these launches will be a telling sign of the state of its overhaul.

Elsewhere, signs continue to be promising. GM said on Thursday that it did not expect to have to make mandatory contributions to its U.S. pension plans for "at least 5 years," good news on an issue that has concerned many investors for awhile. And the company expects taxes and overall capital expenditures to be about the same as in 2012.