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Very strong sales of pickups and SUVs helped power a record operating profit for GM in the third quarter. U.S. sales of the Chevrolet Traverse rose almost 15% during the period. Image source: General Motors.

General Motors'(NYSE:GM) third-quarter operating profit jumped 37% to a record $3.1 billion, on strong truck sales in the U.S. and a good result in China.

GM's net income fell 1.4% to $1.36 billion, dented by a couple of big one-time charges related to last year's ignition-switch recall scandal. But excluding those one-time charges, GM earned $1.50 per share, well ahead of Wall Street's $1.18 estimate.

Revenue declined about 1% to $38.84 billion, on unfavorable exchange-rate moves.

GM shares rose over 4% in early trading after the results were announced.

GM's results, region by region
GM's North America unit continues to be the biggest contributor to the company's bottom line. Its contribution hit record levels in the third quarter: GM North America earned $3.3 billion before interest and taxes, with a pre-tax margin of 11.8%. Both were substantially higher than (good) year-ago results. The story is simple and good: Very strong sales of highly profitable pickups and SUVs, matched with continued discipline around costs and incentives, more than offset so-so sales and some slippage in pricing related to GM's ramp-up to the launches of the new Chevrolet Malibu and Cruze. (Simply put: GM is offering discounts to sell off the last of the old ones.)

GM Europe lost $231 million in the third quarter, an improvement over the $387 million it lost a year ago. GM has been restructuring in Europe in an effort to reverse years of losses. The restructuring is on track: Costs are down, sales are good, and the unit is expected to return to profitability next year.

GM South America lost $217 million, a decline from the $32 it lost in the year-ago quarter. Difficult economic conditions caused big sales declines in key markets like Brazil and Chile, while inflation elsewhere hurt; GM was able to offset that somewhat with price increase and good sales of some new higher-profit products.

GM's International Operations unit is its catch-all for the rest of the world, including its huge operations in China. The unit earned $269 million in the third quarter, up slightly from a year ago. That result included about $500 million in income from GM's joint ventures in China, as sales of GM's SUVs continued to soar despite an overall market slump and increased pressure on pricing.

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The new Buick Envision SUV has been a big seller in China. That has helped GM deliver good results despite a sluggish overall market. Image source: General Motors.

The net profit margin from GM's China joint ventures was 9.8%, a slight improvement from a year ago. The result in China was offset by lower sales volumes in India and Africa, and some unfavorable exchange-rate moves by Australian and South African currencies versus the U.S. dollar.

GM Financial is the company's in-house financing arm. It earned $231 million in the third quarter, up from $205 million a year ago. Its net revenue of $1.7 billion was a record, as more U.S. dealers are using its services. Credit performance was stable, with losses at 2%.

About those special items
As expected, GM took two big one-time charges against third-quarter earnings, totaling $1.475 billion. Both were related to the recall scandal. GM paid the U.S. government $900 million as part of an agreement with the Justice Department. 

Under the agreement, GM can avoid prosecution for crimes related to the delayed recalls if it complies with a series of conditions for three years. GM also settled some of the lawsuits filed by accident victims and their families for $575 million. 

Cash and debt
GM had $21.9 billion in cash as of the end of the third quarter, and another $12.2 billion in available credit facilities, for total "available liquidity" of about $34 billion. Against that, it had $9.1 billion of debt as of the end of the quarter, down a bit from $9.4 billion at the beginning of the year. 

Through the first three quarters of 2015, GM has spent $2.9 billion on share repurchases, paid $1.7 billion in dividends, and lost $1.1 billion to unfavorable exchange-rate shifts. On the positive side of the ledger, GM generated $2.5 billion in free cash flow in its automotive business over the period.

Outlook: No big changes
GM didn't change its 2015 outlook for the company as a whole. It still expects pre-tax earnings and margins to improve versus 2014, and for automotive free cash flow to be about the same as last year. CFO Chuck Stevens did note that GM no longer expects to have improved pre-tax earnings in South America. Given the difficult economic environment in the region, that's no surprise.

The upshot: GM is "on plan"
Stevens and CEO Mary Barra both said that GM is solidly "on plan." GM is in the early stages of a plan to significantly boost profits and global profit margins by early next decade; the groundwork is being laid now, and for the most part, it's looking quite good.

I'll leave you with one last number. We talk a lot about GM's pre-tax profit margins in North America, which have been outstanding over the last couple of years. Its overall profit margin has been much less impressive, but it's coming along: GM's EBIT margin was 8% in the third quarter, up from 5.8% in the year-ago period. 

That's a big deal. If you're a GM shareholder (I am), things are looking good.

John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.