General Motors' Renaissance center in Detroit. Source: General Motors.

Many investors in the automotive industry completely forgot that when the calendar flipped from 2013 to 2014, General Motors (NYSE:GM) was supposed to have a great year. The once-troubled automaker had lined up its new CEO, Mary Barra, it had made plans to reinstate its dividend, and the U.S. Treasury had sold off its remaining stake in the company from its unique bankruptcy during the Great Recession.

Optimism from those events quickly faded as GM's huge recall saga began, resulting from negligence in regard to ignition switches that was linked to many tragic deaths. Despite the year-long beating GM rightfully took in the media, the automaker has put the finishing touches on 2014 and is looking ahead.

How 2014 wrapped up in two key markets
Despite the dark cloud of GM's tragic recalls hanging over the automaker's head throughout 2014, deliveries of GM vehicles in North America increased 6% to more than 3.4 million units. That was a strong enough performance to maintain GM's market share of 16.9%, unchanged from the previous year.

"GM is making solid progress and has good momentum. Our customer focus, the new cars, trucks and crossovers we launched in China and North America, technologies like OnStar with 4GLTE and the revitalization under way at Opel helped us achieve another record year, despite very challenging market conditions in different parts of the world," said Barra in a press release.

Despite North America generating the majority of GM's profitability, its largest region in terms of sales is actually China. GM's deliveries in China rose 12% to a record-high 3.5 million units in 2014, which sent its market share up 60 basis points to 14.8%. GM's Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Wuling, and Baojun brands all set annual record sales in China last year.

As GM continues to roll out new vehicles in key markets such as North America and China, the automaker hopes its financial performance will continue to improve -- much to the delight of investors hoping to ride a rebound in the automaker's stock price.

The road ahead
GM expects its EBIT adjusted and EBIT-adjusted margin to increase in 2015, compared to last year. Furthermore, the automaker also expects its automotive operating results to improve in all of its global regions, which is definitely a good sign for its business, which has been plagued not only by recall costs but by a gloomy European market.

Still on GM's checklist is its goal of reaching 10% EBIT-adjusted margins in North America and of maintaining strong margins in China -- both of which will be key if GM expects to produce strong financial results that will enable the company's stock price to increase faster than the overall market.

With hopes of reaching higher margins, GM plans to fuel higher transaction prices and bottom-line results by injecting investment money into its capital expenditures. The company laid out plans to increase its capital expenditures by 20% this year to $9 billion. Because of that focus on new-vehicle products and paying for recall and quality issues, GM's cash flow will remain flat compared to 2014.

What to watch
Despite all the hurdles General Motors faced in 2014, the year wrapped up about as well as the automaker could have hoped, with sales not cratering after the recalls. 2015 and beyond looks to be much more positive, and profitable, for investors as the company distances itself from "old" GM.

What investors will need to watch in the quarters ahead will be GM's ability to break even in Europe by 2016, continue to sell its full-size trucks -- its most profitable products -- at a high clip, and start reinvigorating its Cadillac brand, which hit a speed bump with sales declining in the U.S. for 2014. If GM can indeed improve those three factors, those will have a significantly positive impact on GM's financial performance in the near term.