Chevy Cruze (syndication)

The Chevy Volt gets all the press, but there’s a new small Chevy that’s far more important to the future of General Motors. That’s the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.

The Cruze went on sale in Asia and parts of Europe in March 2009, and will launch in the States roughly a year after that. The subcompact Cruze replaces the aging Chevrolet Cobalt, a US-only model, for the 2011 model year. For the first time, US buyers will have access to a version of the same car that GM sells worldwide.

First Direct Injection for US

In the States, the Chevy Cruze will use a 1.4-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine, the first such engine offered here by GM. Direct-injection engines are smaller than regular ones, but they put out the same power—providing a fuel economy boost at a lower cost than gas-electric or pure electric technologies. The Volt will use the same 1.4-liter engine to power its onboard electric generator, although that installation does without the turbocharger. At 140 horsepower—hitting the magic 100 horsepower-per-liter mark—GM says this engine will generate the same power and performance as the 2.2-liter conventional engine now used in the Cobalt.

Both manual and automatic transmissions offer six speeds, a major advance over earlier subcompacts that made do with four-speed automatics and four or five gears. Unsurprisingly, the Cruze is front-wheel-drive.

No specifications have been released for the US powertrain, but Chevrolet executives have hinted more than once that the fuel economy will be better than buyers expect—which would put the Chevy Cruze into 35-mpg territory or better.

Styling and Interior

The roofline of the Chevrolet Cruze swoops from its high point to the beltline, shortening the trunk lid and lengthening the cabin. The sides mix knife-edge accent lines and gentle curves, and overall the car looks longer and more substantial than its size would indicate.

Inside, the Chevy Cruze has something of a twin-cockpit effect, with three slightly overlapping circular instruments in the arched pod in front of the driver. The arch is echoed for the front-seat passenger. In between, the center stack has gentle angles rather than square corners, housing the display screen, sound equipment, climate controls, and other controls.

The Cruze interior is clearly related to the well-received interior design of the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu, which set new standards for materials, fit, and finish in the midsize segment. The company apparently intends to repeat that in the compact segment.

The Chevy Cruze has been well received in Europe. Autoweek magazine tested the European version and called it fully competitive with European and Asian offerings. The Cruze was “stable and composed in high-speed corners,” the magazine said, and can “hustle along a European back road with gusto.”

Designed in Korea, Launched in Paris

The Chevrolet Cruze was largely designed in Korea by the GM-Daewoo group, though much of the handling and suspension development was done in Europe. It made its first public appearance at the Paris Motor Show in October 2008, and it’s the first of up to a dozen models based on GM’s new “global subcompact” platform—including, surprisingly enough, the Volt itself.

The US version, though, will likely have better performance, more equipment, and a lower price than those offered to buyers elsewhere. That’s the nature of the US market, the world’s most competitive, where subcompacts stretch to reach a price of $20,000.

While GM continues its media blitz for the Chevy Volt, the company has so far released few details of the US version of the Chevy Cruze, though it has shown the car at auto shows in Detroit, New York, and elsewhere. At less than half the price of the Volt, but with mileage approaching hybrid territory, could the Cruze upstage the Volt as its high-efficiency high-volume hit?