FCA owns Ferrari and Maserati, but Jeep is arguably its flagship brand now. Jeep sales broke 1 million in 2014. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) said on Wednesday that it earned 632 million euros ($717 million) in the fourth quarter, as surging sales of Jeeps and Ram bolstered gains.

Excluding taxes and special items, FCA earned 1.08 billion euros ($1.23 billion), a bit shy of the Wall Street estimate of 1.11 billion euros per Bloomberg.

Revenues rose 13% to 27.1 billion euros ($30.7 billion), aided by the strength of the U.S. dollar. With 1 euro worth just $1.11, its lowest level in over 10 years, each dollar FCA earns is worth more when converted into euros. 

But exchange rates were far from the only thing that went FCA's way during the quarter. For the first time in a while, each of its major business units managed to produce a profit.

An in-depth look under Fiat Chrysler's hood
The best way to understand FCA's results is to look at each of its major business units in turn. Fiat Chrysler divides its mass-market automotive business into regional units, with a separate (global) unit for luxury brands Ferrari and Maserati. Note that all of these results are reported on a pre-tax basis.

FCA's NAFTA unit, which includes its mass-market operations in North America, earned 617 million euros in the fourth quarter, a 4 million-euro drop from a year ago. Net revenues increased by just over 2 billion to 15.33 billion euros, on strong U.S. sales driven primarily by gains in sales of Jeeps and Ram pickups. NAFTA's operating profit margin was just 4%, far shy of those posted by General Motors and Ford in recent months. CFO Richard Palmer attributed the gap to heavy investments in future product development, increased "warranty costs" related to 2014's surge in recalls in the U.S., and ongoing work to upgrade several of the company's factories. CEO Sergio Marchionne promised that the margin gap would be closed in 2015. For the full year, NAFTA earned 1.65 billion euros, down 643 million euros from 2013.

FCA's Ram trucks had a huge year in 2014, with U.S. sales up 24%. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

The LATAM unit covers FCA's substantial operations in Latin America, where the Fiat brand is a market leader. Latin America has been tough going for all automakers, with industrywide sales down 13% in 2014 on economic slowdowns in key markets like Brazil (down 7%) and Argentina (down 29%). But for FCA at least, things are looking up a bit: The unit earned 113 million euros in the fourth quarter, up substantially from a 28 million-euro loss a year ago. Revenues were up slightly to 2.3 billion euros. For the full year, LATAM earned just 177 million euros, down from 492 million euros a year ago. Its operating profit margin was 2.1%.

FCA's APAC unit ("Asia Pacific Australia China") earned 127 million euros in the fourth quarter, up 76 million euros from a year ago. Revenues rose 326 million to 1.66 billion euros. For the full year, APAC earned 537 million euros, a 202-euro increase from its 2013 result, as sales across the region rose 34% -- led by a 41% gain in China, where the Jeep brand is beginning to get traction. Operating profit margin was a fine 8.6%.

FCA's EMEA region covers Europe, an area where nearly all automakers have struggled in recent years. Steep, lingering recessions in many Eurozone nations have held new-car sales at levels sharply lower than those normally seen before the 2008 economic crisis. FCA is no exception, though it managed to eke out a 32 million-euro profit in the fourth quarter, up from a 214 million-euro loss in the year-ago period. Revenues rose 127 million euros to 751 million euros. For the full year, EMEA lost 109 million euros, a nice improvement over its 506 million-euro 2013 loss, as it managed a 1% gain in sales in a tough market.

FCA is preparing its Ferrari unit for a spinoff in 2015, but the unit performed well in 2014. Earnings rose 15% to 115 million euros in the fourth quarter, as revenues jumped 20% to 751 million euros -- a strong result with shipments up just 4%. For the full year, Ferrari's earnings rose 7% to 389 million euros, good enough for a 14.1% operating profit margin.

The Maserati Ghibli helped the old Modena brand more than double its global sales in 2014. Source: Fiat Chrysler.

Maserati kicked off 2014 with its first-ever Super Bowl ad, and ended with a slam-dunk result. Fourth-quarter earnings were 65 million euros, a 7 million-euro increase. Maserati's move into the mainstream luxury market with its midsize Ghibli sedan has turned out to be a profitable one, driving big gains in sales for the old Italian brand in key markets around the world. For the full year, Maserati earned 275 million euros, with a 9.9% operating profit margin on a 67% increase in revenues driven by a whopping 137% increase in shipments.

FCA's Components unit includes Magneti Marelli, a major auto-industry supplier, as well as the smaller Teksid and Comau companies. The unit earned 110 million euros in the fourth quarter, up from just 14 million euros a year ago. For the full year, it earned 260 million euros, a 78% gain versus 2013, on a strong performance by Marelli.

Debt, cash, and 2015 guidance
FCA's "net industrial debt" (its term for the debt related to its vehicle and parts businesses, rather than to its financing operations) was 7.7 billion euros at year-end, up from 7.0 billion euros a year ago. About 300 million euros of that increase was related to the finalization of the acquisition of Chrysler, the rest due to operations. FCA noted that its capital spending of 8.1 billion euros in 2014 was almost entirely covered by income.

FCA had 26.2 billion euros in cash and available credit lines available at year-end, an increase of 3.5 billion euros and a strong reserve for a rainy day. This number will bear watching as FCA continues the aggressive investments needed to fund its ambitious five-year plan.

FCA also gave guidance for 2015. It expects shipments in the 4.8 million-5 million range, pre-tax income of 4.1 billion-4.5 billion euros on net revenues of around 108 billion euros, net income in the 1.0 billion-1.2 billion euros range, and debt to be roughly unchanged -- in the 7.5 billion-8 billion euros range -- at year-end.

The upshot: A work in progress, but the progress is becoming visible
On one hand, FCA still has a lot of work to do, as Marchionne acknowledged on Wednesday. The profit margin in its NAFTA unit needs work, and Marchionne promised that improvements would start to be visible next quarter. Latin America and Europe continue to be works in progress, and major expansion efforts in China and with the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands will continue to require substantial investment.

On the other hand, FCA's U.S. sales were up 16% last year, Maserati is already gaining traction, and the effort to take Jeep global is already showing promise. Marchionne's moves are bearing fruit. And with the stock up 47% since its NYSE debut in October, the market is starting to notice.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.