DETROIT -- Even before investors were done cheering General Motors' solid fourth-quarter earnings report last week, a question seemed to hang in the air: Can GM take it to the next level?
The company is in striking distance of one of its top goals: a pretax profit margin of 10 percent in North America by next year. It's a closely watched indicator of whether GM can finally use its scale to match the profitability of its biggest rivals.
GM has widened that margin for six straight quarters vs. the year before, excluding recall expenses. It was one of many gold stars on its quarterly report card.
Pretax operating profit of $2.41 billion was the highest fourth-quarter result since its 2009 bankruptcy. Vehicle transaction prices hit a record high. Even the trouble spots -- Europe, Asia excluding China, Venezuela -- seemed manageable.
Now it gets tough.
The heady price increases GM has been commanding for its redesigned pickups and SUVs have fueled much of the recent profit gains. That tailwind will start to peter out this year, GM concedes. To expand margins further, GM must dig deeper in areas that are not historical strengths -- smaller cars, for example.
In a research note headlined "Accelerating or peaking?" CLSA analyst Emmanuel Rosner says he sees "further evidence of competitive pressure on GM's U.S. pricing, which could place large hurdles to its 10 percent margin goal by 2016."
GM CFO Chuck Stevens said he knows pricing will "moderate." But there's a plan:
n Boost incremental profit by $1,000 on the next generations of the Chevrolet Malibu, Cruze, Equinox and other redesigned cars and crossovers.
n Introduce new models, such as the Cadillac CT6 large sedan, which goes on sale by year end.
n Pursue new sources of revenue and profit, such as branded F&I products and its 4G LTE service.
"Those are the big drivers" to reach the 10 percent goal, Stevens said.
As if she could sense investors' skepticism, GM CEO Mary Barra closed her formal remarks to analysts on a conference call last week by citing the $1 billion that GM saved on material and logistics costs last year.
"We will continue to aggressively pursue core operating efficiency," she said. "We know there is more work to do."