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 just ahead of the high-tech Volt, the Cruze is the sort of car the auto maker could never pull off in the past: affordable, fun, and, according to GM, profitable.

Ward's tested near-production Cruze models last spring at GM's 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 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 dusts the normally aspirated 1.8L I-4s of its Japanese rivals.

During a test drive that runs the gamut of stop-and-go commuter traffic in Washington, D.C., 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 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 most customers to pick the turbocharged I-4.

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 the drive.

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.

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 there's a lot of 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.

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 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. Overall, the car is surprisingly roomy.

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. This is one compact car that won't leave you road weary.

Exterior styling will not snap many necks, but it's clean and sporty, with arching roofline and slick headlamps.

All-in-all, GM delivers exactly the car it promised two years ago. If given a chance, the Cruze could emerge as the car that put GM back on track.