By Bernie Woodall and Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - Demand for big trucks in North America and an improved performance in Europe propelled General Motors Co's quarterly results well past investors' expectations, and company executives on Thursday affirmed their bullish outlook for the year.
Shares of the automaker rose after it said first-quarter net income more than doubled to $2 billion, closing up 1.5 percent at $32.66.
Earlier the stock briefly topped the $33 price of the company's 2010 initial public offering, which followed a U.S. government-backed bankruptcy. The share price has not significantly surpassed that level in the past year despite GM's three straight quarters of record-breaking pretax profits.
Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has stepped up efforts to persuade skeptical investors that GM can deliver consistently strong earnings - and return billions of dollars to shareholders - through the ups and downs of the industry's sales cycles.
U.S. auto sales set a record last year and are on pace to top that in 2016, but many investors see signs of the start of a cyclical drop off, which has pressured share prices.
Excluding a one-time expense for litigation settlements, GM's first-quarter earnings were $1.26 a share, beating analysts' estimates of $1.00.
The company said pretax income, excluding one-time items, was a record for the first quarter.
GM said it still expected full-year earnings of $5.25 to $5.75 a share before special items, up from $5.02 in 2015.
Revenue for the first quarter rose 4.5 percent to $37.3 billion. Adjusted profit margins increased to 7.1 percent of revenue from 5.8 percent a year earlier.
North America accounted for 85 percent of GM's earnings before interest and taxes, reflecting robust profits from sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, whose sales benefited from low gasoline prices.
Profit margins in the region, however, dipped to 8.7 percent from 8.8 percent a year earlier. Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens attributed the decline to restructuring costs and more U.S. union members taking packages to retire.
Stevens said the company still expected North American margins of more than 10 percent for 2016.
In Europe, GM broke even, reversing a year-earlier loss of $200 million.
Stevens backed the company's target for 8 percent margins in Europe over the next several years but said the possibility that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union was a concern.
The automaker narrowed losses in South America. Income from joint ventures in China was flat at $500 million.
Barra has led GM's efforts to bolster investors' view of the company, including a $9 billion share buyback program that runs through 2017. The company has also made moves to keep up with self-driving vehicles and other technological advances.
In January, GM said it would invest $500 million in ride-sharing company Lyft Inc. On Thursday, Barra said the company expected to close its deal to buy Cruise Automation, a self-driving vehicle startup.
(Reporting by Joseph White and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Von Ahn)