DETROIT - Mary Barra has spent the last three years as General Motors' product chief, making cars that drive better, last longer and look good in showrooms.

Now she will take on an even bigger job. On Tuesday, the board named the 33-year company veteran CEO, making her the first woman to lead a U.S. car company.

Barra replaces Dan Akerson, who moved up retirement by several months to help his wife, Karin, battle advanced cancer.

When Barra starts her new job Jan. 15, she will lead a company that's made nearly $20 billion since emerging from bankruptcy in 2010, much of it from the cars and trucks she helped develop. But she still faces challenges of paring down GM's costs and winning over buyers in international markets such as India and South America.

Akerson, 65, said the board unanimously picked Barra from several internal candidates because of the breadth of her experience, her management record, her people skills, and her understanding of GM's operations.

"This is an executive who has a vision of where she wants to take the organization," he said.

Since February 2011, Barra has held what many say is the most important job at GM - senior vice president for global product development. She joined the company in 1980 as an engineering student and became a plant manager, executive director of engineering, and head of human resources.

Along the way, she earned a reputation as a manager who made tough decisions, yet was able to get people to follow her lead and work as a team, according to current and former GM executives.

The 51-year-old executive has been in charge of design, engineering and quality for all GM vehicles and has shepherded most of the company's recent new vehicle introductions. Under her command, GM rolled out brawny new full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Impala full-size car, which earned the highest score for a sedan in testing by Consumer Reports magazine.

During her tenure, GM's quality scores rose in surveys done by J.D. Power and Associates. She also streamlined the organization, eliminating positions and putting one engineer in charge of each vehicle.

Barra has a rare combination of GM and auto industry knowledge and an ability to make changes, said Ed Whitacre, a former CEO and chairman who promoted Barra to head human resources.

Akerson hinted at Barra's promotion earlier this year when he told a women's business group in Detroit that a "car gal" would someday run one of the Detroit Three automakers. But he made it clear Tuesday that she wasn't picked because she's a woman.

"Mary's one of the most gifted executives I've met in my career," he said.

Women in Charge

Among 23 women CEOS running Fortune 500 firms:

General Motors

Annual revenue: $152 billion

Market value: $56 billion

CEO: Mary Barra, taking over in January 2014

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Annual revenue: $112 billion

Market value: $52 billion

CEO: Margaret Whitman, took over in September 2011

IBM Corp.

Annual revenue: $105 billion

Market value: $193 billion

CEO: Virginia Rometty, took over in January 2012

PepsiCo Inc.

Annual revenue: $65 billion

Market value: $127 billion

CEO: Indra Nooyi, took over in October 2006

Lockheed Martin Corp.

Annual revenue: $47 billion

Market value: $45 billion

CEO: Marillyn Hewson, took over in January 2013

DuPont Co.

Annual revenue: $35 billion

Market value: $57 billion

CEO: Ellen Kullman, took over in January 2009

Mondelez International

Annual revenue: $35 billion

Market value: $60 billion

CEO: Irene Rosenfeld, took over in June 2006 (company was known as Kraft Foods at the time)

Campbell Soup Co.

Annual revenue: $8 billion

Market value: $13 billion

CEO: Denise Morrison, took over in August 2011

Yahoo Inc.

Annual revenue: $5 billion

Market value: $39 billion

CEO: Marissa Mayer, took over in July 2012

- APEndText