City scored twice in the first 15 minutes, Adam Johnson's opener followed quickly by a Carlos Tevez penalty awarded when the striker was brought down by Phil Bardsley.
David Silva's 63rd-minute goal opened the floodgates, substitute Patrick Vieira scored with his first touch and Yaya Toure became the fifth name on the scoresheet with a neat finish in the 73rd.
City manager Roberto Mancini had opted for an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation rather than his customary 4-5-1, bringing back Mario Balotelli to partner Tevez up front after dropping the temperamental Italian last month.
The move to be more adventurous paid off and City, sometimes accused by their fans of playing too defensively, looked sharp in a win that lifted them above Chelsea into third place and strengthened their grip on a Champions League spot.
"We started the game fantastically. All the players played very well," Mancini told Sky Sports, adding that it was a relief to have several players back from injury.
"We hope that we continue to play very well like today. We are third in the table today, our target from the start of the season was the Champions League."
Watching the match at Eastlands was Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whose team went seven points clear at the top on Saturday after a 4-2 comeback win at West Ham United. Second-placed Arsenal were held 0-0 by Blackburn Rovers.
City are 10 points behind their neighbours, who have 66 points from 31 games, and while that may be too far behind to mount a realistic title challenge they do stand in the way of United's bid for a treble as the sides meet in the FA Cup semi-finals.
Chelsea are fourth on 55 points and Arsenal have 59, with both having played one game fewer than the Manchester teams.
City looked quick going forward as Johnson posed a constant threat on the right wing and the England international scored with a lovely left-foot shot after a one-two with Toure.
The hosts kept their foot firmly on the gas and when Bardsley mistimed a lunge on Tevez, the Argentine slotted home from the spot for his 19th league goal of the season.
Sunderland offered little in response and Silva got on the end of a rebound after a Balotelli shot was blocked to put the game beyond the visitors midway through the second half.
That was not enough for City, though, as they produced more of the attacking surges their fans craved when they were neck and neck with United at the top earlier in the season.
Vieira's first contribution was to fling himself at a cros
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