Yes, Virginia, there really is a new GM -- at least, by the numbers.
Higher unit sales. Lower incentives. Higher transaction prices. Declining fleet sales. A continuing discipline in production and inventories. Profits in North America.
The General Motors Co. that plans to issue an initial public offering of stock this week is not the same automaker that consistently lost billions during the industry's boom years of more than 16 million U.S. sales from 1999 to 2007. That makes this a good time for an IPO.
Here, by the numbers, is the new GM that investors are examining.
-- New products, progress on incentives. GM's 6 percent gain in unit sales through October despite dumping four brands has come without the costly incentives GM formerly relied on to move the iron.
GM has been able to hold the line on incentives in part because of strong demand for new models such as the Chevrolet Cruze compact, Buick Regal mid-sized sedan and heavy-duty pickups.
"Product is the key to everything," said Joe Serra, president of Serra Automotive Inc. in Grand Blanc, Mich. GM's vehicle introductions "have been a tremendous success." Serra Automotive is No. 24 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 U.S. dealership groups with retail sales of 13,541 new vehicles in 2009.
GM paid an average $3,533 in incentives per unit sold in the third quarter, up a scant 0.1 percent from a year earlier, TrueCar.com data show. Meanwhile, its average transaction price of $33,862 rose 1 percent.
At three of GM's four brands -- Buick, GMC and Cadillac -- incentives fell by double digits in the third quarter. Buick's per-unit incentives fell 23 percent in the third quarter, and transaction prices rose 4 percent.
Chevrolet was the only brand to pay higher incentives -- up 8 percent -- but its average transaction price rose 6 percent.
Chevy, of course, is by far GM's largest brand. But even with its spending up, GM's overall incentives are trending down.
In October, said Don Johnson, GM's vice president of sales, GM's per-vehicle incentives came in at about $3,250, down about $650 from October 2009. That's still higher than the industry average of $2,498 for October, according to Edmunds.com, but the direction is positive.
Some of the incentive spending aimed to clear out 2010 models, including Chevy Cobalts, to make way for 2011s. At the end of October, 85 percent of the vehicles that GM dealers had in inventory were 2011 models, Johnson said.
-- Inventory discipline. GM is maintaining the production discipline it needs to keep hefty incentives at bay.
GM's U.S. inventory on Nov. 1 was 515,500 units, or a 76-day supply, up seven days from the Oct. 1 figure. But that is still within striking distance of the industry average of 66 days on Nov. 1. On a days-supply basis, GM had a smaller increase in October than Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group or American Honda Motor Co.
"We're building to demand," GM spokesman Tom Henderson said.
He challenged some analysts' speculation that GM had overproduced in the past few months, especially high-profit trucks and crossovers, to book as much new-vehicle revenue as possible prior to the IPO. "We're getting pull from our dealers," Henderson said.
Carmakers book new-vehicle revenue when vehicles leave the factory, not when they are sold.
-- Reduced fleet sales. GM isn't quite there yet. The automaker continues to rely on fleets for a large chunk of its sales: 26 percent in the third quarter, GM CFO Chris Liddell said in an earnings conference call.
But that's down from 34 percent in the second quarter. He predicted fourth-quarter fleet sales would be close to the third-quarter level, bringing full-year fleet sales to between 25 and 28 percent of total sales.
GM, like Ford, is racking up huge profits even with the U.S. industry mired in a sales "depression," said Dave Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
He said UAW concessions in 2007 and again in 2009, coupled with bankruptcy-induced debt reduction and the hand-off of hourly retiree health care obligations to a UAW trust, have cut GM's North American cost structure by $4,000 to $6,000 per vehicle.
That has put GM's costs nearly on a par with those of Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. at their U.S. plants, Cole said. And the reductions have paved the way for huge profits once the industry returns to annual sales of even 13.5 million to 14 million units, he said.
Said Cole: "GM's poised to be a real earnings machine."