Manchester City moved to the top of the Premiership as Sunderland lost their third-straight Premiership fixture.
Darius Vassell slotted the ball across Kelvin Davis for Manchester City's opener and Trevor Sinclair then scored with a curling right-foot strike.
Anthony Le Tallec wasted two good chances before scoring a header from a corner to reduce the deficit.
Davis saved from Andy Cole just after the break, while Sunderland's Dean Whitehead directed a header just wide.
City, with two wins and a draw from their opening three games, sit at the top of the Premiership for the first time since 2003 - in stark contest to rock-bottom Sunderland.
Mick McCarthy's team need to rapidly improve if they are to make a fist of survival.
Sunderland played a full part in the match but need to tighten up at the back and show a more clinical edge in front of goal if they are to make an impression upon the division.
With better finishing Sunderland would surely have come away with at least a point - and no one was more wasteful that Le Tallec, who spurned two excellent first-half chances.
The French striker was played clean through after 22 minutes but his shot was comfortably saved by James.
Three minutes later Le Tallec opted to try and head a teasing cross that eluded City's defence.
Had he tried to kick the ball he would have surely scored, but instead ended up heading it tamely at full stretch inches above the ground.
Either side of Le Tallec's misses, City had demonstrated just how to finish.
Vassell toe-poked Barton's exquisite through ball past Davis for the opener and Sinclair then punished Sunderland's failure to clear their lines with City's second.
City had needed just three minutes to open up Sunderland's brittle defence, Cole forcing a save from Davis after an interchange of passes had undone the backline.
But Mick McCarthy's team - with Le Tallec and Stephen Elliott in the starting line up - also created chances.
And James made more saves than Davis in the first half, denying Andy Gray and Arca from long-range in addition to a shot from a tight angle by Le Tallec.
James had tipped Arca's shot around the post and from the resultant corner Le Tallec eluded Richard Dunne to head Sunderland back into the contest.
City should have restored their two-goal advantage minutes into the second half but Davis made an excellent save to thwart Cole from eight yards after he had been played in by Sinclair.
James palmed away a free-kick from Arca and then climbed well to punch away a corner as Sunderland tried to force their way on to level terms.
Jonathan Stead, introduced at the break, came inches away from a crucial contact at the near post and Whitehead narrowly missed.
Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy:
"We need to put our chances away. We deserved a draw but we did not get one.
"We are doing alright in terms of playing but what we need to do is win a game. We must keep doing the same things and keep believing in them.
"But I thought that as a team we gave value for money."
Manchester City manager Stuart Pearce:
"I think that for the 90 minutes we were probably second best.
"Mick McCarthy's team were better and deserved to win the game.
"The players came in having won but there was an air of disappointment, they know they did not deserve to win.
"Sometimes all you can do is take the result, go away and work on it."
Sunderland: Davis, Nosworthy, Stubbs, Breen, Arca, Whitehead, Miller, Welsh, Elliott, Gray (Stead 45), Le Tallec (Lawrence 82).
Subs Not Used: Robinson, Caldwell, Joe Murphy.
Goals: Le Tallec 41.
Man City: James, Mills, Dunne, Jordan (Onuoha 75), Thatcher, Sinclair, Barton, Reyna, Musampa (Jihai 80), Cole, Vassell.
Subs Not Used: De Vlieger, Sibierski, Wright-Phillips.
Booked: Cole, Mills.
Goals: Vassell 10, Sinclair 35.
Ref: P Walton (Northamptonshire).