Hyperglycemia is associated with altered myocardial substrate use, a condition that has been hypothesized to contribute to impaired cardiac performance. The goals of this study were to determine whether changes in cardiac metabolism, gene expression, and function precede or follow the onset of hyperglycemia in two mouse models of obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes (ob/ob and db/db mice). Ob/ob and db/db mice were studied at 4, 8, and 15 wk of age. Four-week-old mice of both strains were normoglycemic but hyperinsulinemic. Hyperglycemia develops in db/db mice between 4 and 8 wk of age and in ob/ob mice between 8 and 15 wk. In isolated working hearts, rates of glucose oxidation were reduced by 28-37% at 4 wk and declined no further at 15 wk in both strains. Fatty acid oxidation rates and myocardial oxygen consumption were increased in 4-wk-old mice of both strains. Fatty acid oxidation rates progressively increased in db/db mice in parallel with the earlier onset and greater duration of hyperglycemia. In vivo, cardiac catheterization revealed significantly increased left ventricular contractility and relaxation (positive and negative dP/dt) in both strains at 4 wk of age. dP/dt declined over time in db/db mice but remained elevated in ob/ob mice at 15 wk of age. Increased beta-myosin heavy chain isoform expression was present in 4-wk-old mice and persisted in 15-wk-old mice. Increased expression of peroxisomal proliferator-activated receptor-alpha regulated genes was observed only at 15 wk in both strains. These data indicate that altered myocardial substrate use and reduced myocardial efficiency are early abnormalities in the hearts of obese mice and precede the onset of hyperglycemia. Obesity per se does not cause contractile dysfunction in vivo, but loss of the hypercontractile phenotype of obesity and up-regulation of peroxisomal proliferator-activated receptor-alpha regulated genes occur later and are most pronounced in the presence of longstanding hyperglycemia.