WASHINGTON – For all of its tree-hugging gusto, the upcoming Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle will not make or break the new General Motors Co. No, that role belongs to the much-thriftier but superbly capable Chevy Cruze.

A traditional compact sedan arriving at dealers just ahead of the high-tech Volt, the Cruze is the sort of car the auto maker’s pre-bankruptcy entity could never pull off: affordable, fun, and, according to GM, profitable.

Ward’s tested near-production models of the Cruze last spring at GM’s sprawling Milford, MI, proving grounds, finding the 1.4L turbocharged 4-cyl. engine and its amazingly compact 6-speed transmission a winning combination – except for the powertrain’s momentary trepidation off the line.

Driving the car again here recently, it appears a few extra months of calibration successfully ironed out that hiccup.

In fact, GM North America President Mark Reuss tells Ward’s an uneven balance between high fuel economy and fun-to-drive dynamics was the reason behind a tardy Job One launch at Cruze’s Lordstown, OH, assembly plant.

GM’s patience, which it lacked in its previous life, pays off. Put simply, there is no car sold today in the Cruze’s class that is more appealing.

The Cruze is preferable to both the popular Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and much of the credit goes to its powertrain and an excellent, cost-effective chassis.

The pint-sized 138-hp engine and its Honeywell turbo deliver lots of punch along a broad torque band – 1,850 to 4,900 rpm – and not surprisingly dusts the normally aspirated 1.8L I-4s found in its Japanese competitors.

During testing here that runs the gamut of stop-and-go Beltway commuter traffic to lonely country roads, the Cruze averages a tidy 27.4 mpg (8.6 L/100 km), or slightly less than its 28 mpg combined cycle rating from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Picking through metropolitan Washington’s interstates during morning rush, it is easy to appreciate such a refined engine, and the 6-speed automatic provides the perfect complement.

Working three pedals under such conditions would be insufferable.

GM does not provide base models with a 136-hp 1.8L 4-cyl. for testing. The auto maker expects far fewer takers for that powerplant, given the turbo’s superior fuel economy.

’11 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ
Vehicle type ront-engine, FWD, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 1.4L turbocharged DOHC 4-cyl. with cast-iron block, aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 138 hp @ 4,900 rpm
Torque 148 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) @ 1,850 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 72.5 x 82.6
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 105.7 ins. (268.5 cm)
Overall length 181 ins. (459.7 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (179.6 cm)
Overall height 58.1 ins. (147.6 cm)
Curb weight 3,102 lbs. (1,882 kg)
Base price $22,695
Fuel economy 24/36 mpg (9.8-6.5 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra
Pros Cons
Refined 1.4L turbo Some over-assist to EPS
Symphonic chassis system Wide swaths of plastic
Roomy, quiet interior Rivals ’round the corner

GM will offer 6-speed manual transmissions for each engine and trim level by early spring, and an ECO version delivering an estimated 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) on the highway will be available by January.

The Cruze also handles better than the Civic or Corolla, which GM offers for competitive comparisons at a stop along the drive route.

That’s saying a lot, too, because the Civic for many years has led the segment in ride-and-handling with its double-wishbone front/multi-link rear setup.

GM counters with a MacPherson-type indy front suspension of its own, but de-couples the strut to better handle nasty bumps in the roadway. Hydraulic bushings in the control arms further isolate the ride and disperse harsh inputs.

Take the Cruze into a bumpy corner at higher speeds and it gobbles up the feedback, keeping the car swinging confidently and comfortably through the turn.

The Civic, by comparison, wants to skid over the bumps, while the Corolla, well, let’s not go there.

A Watts Z-link design borrowed from the Opel Astra for the rear suspension further refines the Cruze’s ride-and-handling. Call it a poor man’s multi-link, but its Germanic roots are evident on the drive route here.

The setup imparts excellent balance to the car as we whisk along the curvy roads of Virginia horse country.

Four-wheel disc brakes with vented rotors provide ready stopping power, and traction/electronic stability control work to keep all four wheels planted and directionally stable.

After avoiding a near head-on crash with a delivery truck around one particularly narrow turn of the drive route, we can report the various chassis systems work in symphony-like harmony.

Pushed to quibble, we’d call out a rack-mounted electric power-steering system with good on-center feel but a tad too much assist at times as the one band member off key.

Inside, the Cruze benefits from quality materials and some elegant 2-tone motifs. But brace yourself – there’s a lot of mono-tone plastic, too.

The center console, for example, would look much better if the parking brake were fitted with at least a leatherette boot or removed altogether in favor of an electronic unit. GM says cost restraints prohibit the latter, but we’ll hold out hope for the ’12 or ’13 model.

Likewise, the door panels consist of large, bland swaths of dark brown or beige.

At the same time, the plastic is low gloss, mostly grained and pleasant to the touch. Nickel-like trim pieces on the center stack and steering wheel of our top-of-the-range LTZ tester look upscale. All gaps are uniform and clean.

The leather seats are comfortable and supportive, and the driver’s side bucket backs up astonishingly far, even accommodating our drive partner’s 6-ft.-5-in. frame (196 cm). Overall, the car is surprisingly roomy for its segment.

Another plus is the sporty gauge package rimmed with chrome-like accents, and the ice-blue instrument lighting.

The Cruze’s quiet cabin will make its competition green with envy. GM did not skimp, stuffing no fewer than 30 acoustic dampers in the car, ranging from sound-absorbing foam inside hollow areas of the body to doors with triple seals. This is one compact car that won’t leave you road weary.

GM also spends generously on safety equipment, as no fewer than 10 airbags protect occupants.

Neither the National Highway Safety Traffic Admin. nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have tested the Cruze, but GM expects the same top ratings it has received for the car in other countries where it has been on sale for more than a year.

But we saw a Cruze crashed into an offset barrier at 30 mph (48 km/h) earlier this year, and the driver’s door still worked like new – proof the Cruze is structurally sound.

The exterior styling will not snap too many necks, but it’s clean and sporty, with an arching roofline, prominent grille, slick headlamps and meaty wheels and tire packages for LTZ models.

All-in-all, GM delivers exactly the car it promised two years ago. But the auto maker has precious little time to convince consumers because a redesign of the segment-leading Civic arrives next year alongside what it is expected to be a super fuel-efficient Hyundai Elantra.

The Cruze beats a much-improved Ford Focus to market by just a few months, and a new Corolla comes in 2012. But if given a chance, the Cruze could emerge as the car that put GM back on track.

jamend@wardsauto.com