I present a study of the molecular gas and star formation (SF) properties in the inner few kpc of the brightest nearby M82-class starbursts and control non-starbursts, based on high resolution CO (J=1--0) observations, optical and NIR images, along with published radio continuum and Br-gamma data. I outline the marked differences between molecular gas in the inner kpc and outer disk of spiral galaxies in terms of gas surface densities, gas mass fractions, epicyclic frequencies, and velocity dispersions. One implication is that in the inner kpc, gravitational instabilities set in only at very high gas densities, but once triggered they grow rapidly on a timescale of a few Myrs. This growth timescale is now comparable to the lifetime of massive stars which destroy molecular clouds and therefore, the fraction of gas converted into stars may be ehhanced in the inner kpc. Furthermore, the high pressure, high turbulence ISM may favor the formation of massive clusters. Most of the sample galaxies have developed large gas concentrations inside the outer inner Lindblad resonance (OILR) of the large-scale stellar bar. I discuss the differences in SFR per unit mass of molecular gas or star formation efficiency (SFE) between the starbursts and non-starbursts. The SFE is not a simple function of molecular gas content. In the starbursts, the local gas density is close to the Toomre critical density for the onset of gravitational instabilities. Conversely, in the non-starbursts, sub-critical densities and large local velocity gradients in the extended gas appear to inhibit SF in several gas-rich regions. A comparison between nearby starbursts and the prototypical ULIRG Arp 220 is presented.