Just two years years after emerging from bankruptcy, General Motors made $7.6 billion in 2011, its best full-year profit ever.

"In our first full year as a public company, we grew the top and bottom lines, advanced our global market share and made strategic investments in our brands around the world," said GM CEO Dan Akerson, in a statement released by the company.

The performance was significantly higher than the $4.7 billion profit that GM posted in 2010, and substantially tops GM's previous all time high earnings of $6.7 billion in 1997.

Nonetheless, GM shares were down in early trading today, largely because the company's troubled European operation lost more than expected. It remains a significant and unpredictable drag on the company's earnings in 2012.

"GM's North American operations show solid, fundamental success, with consumers reacting extremely well to new products such as Chevy Cruze and Equinox, as well as Buick Regal and LaCrosse," said David Kiley, editor-in-chief of AOL Autos. "If you are looking for reasons GM will have another strong year, I'd point to the fact that they are still carving big inefficiencies out of its global product creation, and the very positive reaction to new products coming out this year like the Cadillac ATS sedan and Chevy Spark."

GM's fourth quarter - as expected - was weak. The company lost $700 million on its European operations. GM earned $7.2 billion dollars in North America.

GM has become much more efficient since its government-assisted bankruptcy in 2009. The company trimmed unproductive brands from its roster, such as Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab, and was relieved of billions in annual healthcare costs for retirees.

The automaker returned to its status as the world's largest automaker in 2011, helped in part by lost production by Toyota in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake last year.

GM's record earnings come at a time when the validity and success of the government-led rescue of GM in 2009 is being hotly debated in political circles ahead of the Michigan Republican primary scheduled for Feb. 28.

Analysts agree the company is succeeding in fundamentals that will keep it more competitive than ever with Ford and Asian rivals Toyota and Honda.

"2011 was a year of solid recovery for GM. The company increased its sales by over 13 percent, added a half of point of market share, increased average transaction prices by over $1,100, all while lowering incentive spending by 5 percent," said analyst Jesse Toprak of Truecar.com.

GM's executives forecast higher sales in 2012 and further market share gains.

"We are executing an aggressive product plan that will give customers around the world even more reasons to purchase a General Motors vehicle," said CFO Dan Ammann in a statement.

"Behind the scenes we are working hard to eliminate complexity and cost throughout the organization to increase margins in all of our regions, and return Europe and South America to profitability."