The first photographs of General Motors Corp.’s all-new Chevrolet Cruze global compact sedan evokes a strong reaction from industry observers and insiders alike.

“It looks really quite good, as good as GM led us to believe. A handsome car,” says Ed Kim, director-industry analysis at AutoPacific, which provides marketing- and product- consulting services to the auto industry.

“The key will be if it gets the same interior as Europe,” Kim tells Ward’s. “But with a 1.4L direct-injection engine and a 6-speed automatic, which is a real high-end, high-grade powertrain, that’s more for a small car than we’ve ever seen out of Detroit.”

The Cruze is set to debut next year in Europe and in mid-2010 for the U.S. market, after production for the U.S. begins at GM’s assembly plant in Lordstown, OH.

GM previously has said the U.S.-market car would feature a 1.4L turbocharged version of a global 4-cyl. engine slated for production in Flint, MI. An official announcement awaits investment-incentive approvals from the City of Flint.

Erich Merkle, an auto analyst with Crowe Chizek and Co., says if GM wrings 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) out of the U.S. powertrain, it will have a hit on its hands with the Cruze.

“It’s a great-looking vehicle, a great-looking compact car,” he says.

Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers union Local 1112 in Lordstown, says he’s an early fan of the design, as well.

“I love it,” he says. “It has more of a European flair and not an Asian look.”

The Cruze bows in sheet metal at the Paris auto show in October and arguably plays the lead role in GM’s effort to meet a rapid shift in consumer demand away from gas-guzzling trucks to more fuel-efficient passenger cars.

The first official Cruze images released by GM today show arching, coupe-like lines extending from a steeply raked windshield to sloping rear pillars and a short rear deck.

GM expects the vehicle will arrive to market wider and longer than its competitors, with “a purposeful stance,” its wheels pushed to the outer edges of “tautly drawn bodywork.” The auto maker also promises tight exterior fit-and-finish and modest exterior trim to deliver a “high quality, ‘hewn-from-solid’ appearance.”

The front end benefits from large headlamp housings that wrap the corners and “sweep up, arrow-like,” GM says, to the fenders and sculpted hood. GM also cites “a concave shoulder line, 2-tier grille and a ‘wheels-out/body-in’ stance” as other distinctive design details.

Inside, the Cruze will get the same Corvette-inspired, “twin-cockpit” design seen on the redesigned-for-’08 Malibu midsize car and the upcoming Traverse midsize cross/utility vehicle.

Cruze Chief Designer Taewan Kim says GM’s goal was bold but not evolutionary, styling.

“We wanted to take a big step forward, making a strong design statement for Chevrolet products around the world,” Kim says in a statement.

GM says the Cruze will launch in Europe in March with an available 16-valve, 1.6L 4-cyl. engine generating 112 hp and a 1.8L 4-cyl. mill delivering 140 hp. Both gasoline engines will feature variable-valve timing on both inlet and exhaust sides, which according to GM provides more power, better fuel economy and lower emissions.

A new 2.0L turbocharged diesel engine with 150 hp and 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque also will be available. GM will mate a 5-speed manual transmission to the engines and offer the brand’s first 6-speed transmission in the compact segment.

GM intends to offer additional, regional-specific powertrains, such as the Flint-built 1.4L DIG engine, as the vehicle launches elsewhere around the world.

But, says Kim, pricing perhaps will play the greatest role in the Cruze’s success stateside. GM does not reveal pricing today.

“We don’t know the price, and that’s a big question,” he says.

Kim expects GM to ask a premium price for the car, given the extra cost it will sink into materials and technology. But at the same time, the Cruze’s pricing could benefit from new corporate average fuel economy rules that likely will push up the price of all vehicles.

The key, he says, will be pricing the Cruze to reflect its value proposition and elude the image of cheapness many buyers associate with small cars from Detroit auto makers.

“You get more traction out of pricing something comparable to the competition with more content than offering the same content at a cheaper price,” he says. “Same price, more content improves your image.”

But Merkle says don’t expect the Cruze to cure all that ails GM, as the Taurus once did for Ford Motor Co.

“We’re all talking (the Chevrolet) Volt, Volt, Volt right now, but that not what’s going to save them,” Merkle says, referring to the electric vehicle GM wants to bring to market by the end of 2010.

“Affordable, fuel-efficient cars for the masses is what they need. And (success) will take a string of product hits. There are no silver bullets any longer – too many auto makers, too many models.”

Ward’s first reported June 6 GM’s plans to derive the Cruze’s new architecture from the next-generation Chevrolet Optra/Daewoo Lacetti currently produced by GM’s South Korean subsidiary for global consumption outside the U.S.

GM also will bring a new-generation Chevy Aveo subcompact to the U.S. in second-half 2010 to help meet demand for small cars.