MILFORD, MI – General Motors Co. provides some of the first drives of its new-for-’11 Chevrolet Cruze, an upscale compact car the auto maker has tasked with propelling its turnaround from last year’s bankruptcy.

“It’s a car that means a lot to me personally and a lot to General Motors,” says Bob Lutz, GM’s outgoing vice chairman, who considers the car, along with the ’11 Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle, among the triumphs of his 10-year stint at the auto maker.

Lutz retires from GM May 1 after rejoining the auto maker in 2001 to lead product development and put the punch back in GM’s cars and trucks. The Cruze will begin arriving at dealers in volume in September, while the Volt comes in late November.

During a backgrounder on the Cruze at GM’s sprawling proving grounds here, Lutz calls the globally developed sedan proof of GM “twisting the dial, going from doing mediocre cars to the absolute epitome of best-in-class.”

In the future, “We will spend more on investment; we will spend more on engineering and materials,” Lutz says.

Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI, says the Cruze indeed reflects the new GM. No longer hide-bound by enormous legacy costs, he says GM can afford to richen previously dowdy, money-losing small cars.

Cole tells Ward’s during a break from testing the Cruze that GM’s historical imbalance has “flipped back over to the other side,” with its clean balance sheet out of Chapter 11. “Excellent car,” he adds. “What really tells the story is midsize capability in a compact car.”

Chevy marketers want to distance the Cruze as far as possible from GM’s previous entry in the segment, the Cobalt. That’s fair, too, given it receives an extensively redesigned Delta architecture, featuring a unique rear-suspension setup and a significantly stronger chassis.

But for comparison purposes, the Cruze is 0.5 in. (1.3 mm) longer than the Cobalt, but the wheelbase grows by more than 2 ins. and its overall width increases by almost as much. The front track stretches 2 ins. (5 cm) longer and rear track grows 3 ins. (7.6 cm) wider.

Front and rear headroom, legroom, hip room and shoulder room also improve, giving the Cruze midsize roominess in the compact class.

GM does not release curb weight, citing pending certification, but the Cruze feels much more substantial than its predecessor and also better-balanced than the nose-heavy Cobalt.

Up front, the Cruze receives a McPherson setup, but engineers add a number of tuning refinements, such as hydraulic ride bushings in the front control arms to isolate unwanted feedback from the roadway.

On paper, the rear suspension may draw some criticism.

GM puts together a patented design combining a torsion beam with an old-fashioned Watt Z-link. GM engineers say the Watt setup trims suspension mass, makes for easier packaging and tuning to specific markets, and it behaves like a more expensive independent suspension.

On the test track, the Cruze stays flat over pitches in the roadway and absorbs chatter bumps nicely at higher speeds, with the rear rubber sticking to the pavement while competitive vehicles hop badly through the same turns.

A rack-mounted, electronic-power-steering system from ZF Friedrichshafen AG offers precise, on-center feel and, according to GM, provides a bump of 0.5 mpg (0.2 km/L) in fuel economy.

As with the redesigned-for-’08 Chevy Malibu, GM spent lots of money on taming noise, vibration and harshness. It pays off, delivering an unexpectedly quiet cabin for its class even as high winds howled across the proving grounds.

Among the NVH additions is neutral idle, which automatically shifts the car in neutral at stops. It creates a smoother idle, GM says, and helps conserve fuel.

The extra money the auto maker spent on interior materials at Lutz’s urging also shows, as does his prodding to pay attention to details. Audio and HVAC controls, for example, receive a rubbery skin for a pleasantly tactile feel.

GM asked not to pass judgment on the interior fit-and-finish, given the testers were pre-production models brought to Milford from all corners of the globe, but the interior appears crisp, particularly where the doors meet the dash.

At the same time, it appears the auto maker took every opportunity to add a plastic chrome ring for flair, and piano-black inserts for the shifter column look a bit dated. GM says both play well in international markets, but they may find mixed opinions in North America.

On the safety side, GM adds electronic stability control as standard equipment one model-year ahead of a government mandate, and the Cruze receives no less than 10 airbags.

Knee bags for driver and passenger also come standard, one of the few compact cars with the feature. The auto maker also spends a few extra bucks to add a fifth head rest in the second row.

GM engineers decline to speculate on possible safety ratings from either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., but tell Ward’s they expect the same class-leading performance the Cruze has logged in the 60 other countries it already sells.

With regulators getting tougher and consumers expecting more, all auto makers are sinking more safety technology into their small cars, and the Cruze is an excellent example of that convergence.

In fact, GM offers a crashed Cruze for journalists to nose around and points out how the driver’s door opens and closes despite undergoing a 40-mph (64 km/h) offset test.

“We’re very proud of the integrity this vehicle has been able to maintain,” GM safety engineer Ken Bonello says, crediting the auto maker’s $10 million crash-test facility at Milford and the thousands of hours of computer simulation used to predict performance.

One of the most intriguing elements of the Cruze is its all-new 1.4L turbocharged gasoline engine with variable-valve timing. The motor is a stout performer, using a Honeywell booster to provide a balance between sportiness and efficiency.

GM says fuel economy numbers will come with pricing this summer, but Eco models with the same engine and 6-speed clutch-to-clutch automatic transmission will achieve 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) on the highway.

GM engineers say the Eco model is for buyers wanting “those couple additional miles per gallon,” suggesting regular models will turn in only slightly poorer fuel economy.

With 138 hp and the fun of 148 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) of torque across a wide rpm band, 1.4L models tested here prove well-powered.

Our only quibble is the moment of hesitation off the line before the turbo spools up, but this, after all, is a comparatively tiny engine and one that boasts a remarkable specific output of 100 hp/L.

If there’s a worry, it would be that the standard 1.8L naturally aspirated engine will not cut the mustard. GM promises test drives of that powertrain soon.

But there’s little to find fault with the model tested here regarding the engineering and design sides of the ledger. If GM can just get the pricing right, the Cruze promises to keep the company’s comeback solidly on track.

jamend@wardsauto.com