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5 Cars Put GM in Driver's Seat

Updated with earnings results

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- Three years ago, General Motors (GM) was a bloated, bankrupt automaker with models nobody was buying, brands that customers and the company were abandoning and an outlook that was less about building buzz than about planning an early burial.

Thanks to a leaner lineup, likable models and a new culture that actually listens to the consumer, the new GMs put that company in the rear view. The company reported earnings today and seems to have turned the corner -- with a first quarter net income of $3.2 billion, or $1.77 per fully-diluted share, and revenue increasing $4.7 billion to $36.2 billion.

"We are on plan," said Dan Akerson, GM chairman and CEO, in a statment. "GM has delivered five consecutive profitable quarters, thanks to strong customer demand for our new fuel-efficient vehicles and a competitive cost structure that allows us to leverage our strong brands around the world and focus on driving profitable automotive growth."

Last month, GM's total U.S. auto sales jumped 27%, to 232,538 vehicles. Its sales for the year, meanwhile, are up more than 25%, giving GM a firm 20% share of the U.S. market that's well ahead of its next largest competitor, Ford's (F) 16%, and distancing itself from its toughest foreign foe, Toyota (TM) -- whose share has slipped from 15% last year to 14% so far this year. Since its $23 billion, $33-a-share IPO in November, General Motors has been the only automaker among the Top 3 to gain market share, as even resurgent Ford's year-to-date portion fell slightly, from 16.7% last year to 16.2% thus far in 2011.

Part of that resurgence comes from just giving the customers what they want, such as giving Chevrolet Camaro buyers a base 312-horsepower engine in a $22,000 car, but condensing that power into a conservative 3.6-liter V6 engine that still gets nearly 30 miles per gallon on the highway.

"Ever since the IPO, General Motors has had the opportunity to 'right-size' their models," says Brandy Schaffels, senior editor of TrueCar. "By eliminating Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn, they're able to really focus on their core models, and certain models are now able to do better because they're not competing within their own network."

The ongoing energy crisis in Japan after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear events there and the unexpected disruption to Japanese automakers' U.S. output after a spate of tornadoes in the South has offered GM yet another road to recovery. The company said 33% of its April revenue came from government and rental-company fleet sale. That's an extraordinarily high figure akin to what carmakers were using as a crutch during recent recession-based retail slumps, but it's a smart move considering GM's ongoing recovery.

"As of right now, Honda (HMC - Get Report) doesn't do much fleet, Toyota (TM) does a little bit and Nissan (NSANY) does a little more," says Ivan Drury, analyst for Edmunds.com. "From GM's standpoint, if those companies pull back, we may as well fill that gap because otherwise it'll be Chrysler or Ford taking those spots."

It's hard for GM to take blame for accepting whatever business it can get, especially when it's trying to sell vehicles to a buyer base that already has a big stake in its comeback. The U.S. government and, by extension, its taxpayers invested $50.7 billion into GM's bailout, or nearly 80% of what was spent to bail out bankrupt U.S. automakers in 2008 and 2009. GM is still on the hook for more than $27 billion of that and, even in its fleet sales, has been trying to woo customers with more of what they wanted in the first place. Drury says GM has leveraged Chevy Malibu and Impala sales -- which have increased 11.5% and 29.8% this year, respectively -- out of its fleet agreements in an attempt to let consumers check out the two-tone interiors, soft-touch fabric and dual-cockpit seating. Even the Cadillac CTS isn't being allowed onto rental lots without being loaded with such features as navigation systems and OnStar safety and concierge service.

"You've gone from a situation where, historically, the inside of cars were not the vehicle's strength to getting inside these vehicles and finding they're really nice places to be," says David Sargent, J.D. Power and Associates' vice president of global vehicle research. "When you watch consumers in the showroom, they immediately jump in the driver's seat, turn knobs, press buttons and feel the material, and the advances that domestics have made on the interior has really helped them in the showrooms."

With help from auto industry analysts, TheStreet has identified the five GM models that have not only helped GM accelerate out of its slump, but have driven its post-IPO search for an identity straight into earnings season:
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