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Booming sales of new sport utility vehicles helped General Motors Co. set a profit record last year and have given the automaker impetus to forecast steady earnings in 2018.

Even as sales at home slowed, GM posted adjusted profit of $1.65 a share for the fourth quarter, beating analysts' average prediction of $1.38 a share. The company made up for shipping fewer vehicles to dealers by delivering pricier models and cutting costs.

"We couldn't be more pleased with our results and disciplined execution," Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens told reporters Tuesday at the company's headquarters in Detroit. "North American earnings and pricing has been a benefit. What has really driven results in North America has been our focus on cost. It's a combination."

GM's earnings strength has been fueled by several new crossovers that were redesigned as American consumers pour into more spacious models. Both the compact Chevrolet Equinox and larger Traverse hadn't been completely overhauled since around the time GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.

The company's stock jumped 18 percent in 2017.

Two big charges last year led GM to report net losses of $5.15 billion for the quarter and $3.86 billion for 2017.

Excluding the one-time charges, GM made $9.9 billion, or $6.62 a share.

The U.S. tax law made the company's deferred tax assets less valuable, resulting in a $7.3 billion non-cash charge in the last three months of the year. The automaker also took a $6.2 billion charge in the third quarter related to the sale of its European units Opel and Vauxhall to the French carmaker PSA Group.

Sales of the Equinox rose 20 percent in the U.S. last year, and the more expensive Traverse grew 5.8 percent. The new Equinox sold for an average price of almost $25,700 last month, up more than $3,000 from the average last year for 2017 models. The Traverse sells for an average of about $36,800, up about $7,000, according to data from GM.

GM also started selling redesigned versions of the Buick Enclave and GMC Terrain last year. Its Cadillac XT5 crossover made major gains, with U.S. deliveries surging 73 percent in 2017. Demand for the luxury brand is rapidly growing among Chinese consumers, with the division expecting global profit to double by 2021.

The SUV strength blunted the effect on GM when the seven-year streak of U.S. auto industry sales growth came to an end last year. Other automakers haven't weathered the storm as well, with Ford Motor Co.'s fourth-quarter earnings prompting the stock's biggest sell-off in almost 18 months.

Ford's plan to enter the fast-growing small SUV segment in the U.S. -- an area where GM's Buick Encore has been competing since 2013 -- could help it play catch-up this year.

GM Financial, the automaker's in-house lender, has been expanding and should keep growing this year, Stevens said. Profit increased by about $400 million to $1.2 billion last year. The unit should eventually finance 55 percent to 60 percent of GM's retail sales in the U.S., up from about 40 percent in 2017, according to Stevens.

GM's earnings for the year will prompt the company to pay its 50,000 union workers a bonus of $11,750, spokesman Tom Henderson said.

Full-year earnings in 2018 will be in line with the $6.62 a share earned in 2017, according to the company. Executives are forecasting steady profit even as the carmaker plans to idle truck plants so they can change over to building revamped Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.

Stevens said GM expects interest rates to increase 0.75 percent this year as the Federal Reserve acts to stave off inflation, adding that, generally, auto companies' finance arms try to make up for rising rates with subsidies.

Auto loan rates now run around 3 percent to 4 percent for buyers with good credit.

Across the industry, subsidized loans make up a relatively low percentage of incentive spending because financing rates remain so low, Stevens said. But as rates rise, companies likely will move dollars from other sales incentives to keep loan rates low, he said.

"Leasing and cash-based incentives are kind of predominant now," Stevens said. "As interest rates increase, there will be more subvented financing. Then you'll reduce other parts of the toolbox."

A quarter-point rate increase from the Fed pushes up a typical monthly car payment by only $3, Stevens said.

GM expects 2018 to be another strong year for sales because wages are growing, gas prices are low and consumers will have more disposable income because of tax cuts, Stevens said.

Information for this article was contributed by Tom Krisher of The Associated Press.

Business on 02/07/2018

Print Headline: GM reports earnings hit record in '17, led by revamp of SUVs

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