GM’s next-generation Chevy small-car will vault the company into the 40 mpg range, according to industry insiders. Spy photographers have captured the front-drive car in action, powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine. Originally planned as the next-generation Cobalt subcompact due in 2010, it will now get is own name and be put forward as part of the company’s eco-stance along with the plug-in hybrid Volt. Plans for the Cobalt may now continue on their own, though Chevy may switch to different underpinnings from its current platform.

The architecture for the new high-mileage Chevy is part of GM’s worldwide push to communize vehicle structures, allowing it save money and have more flexibility. In addition to the new small-car, this same platform will be the basis for the Volt. In other markets, it will be the basis for up to five different body styles, including sedans, hatchbacks and minivans in markets as diverse as Korea, China and South America. Among the models are a Daewoo-badged Korean sedan, a Chevrolet for Europe, an Opel seven-passenger minivan (replacing the Zafira), a premium Buick for China, and unnamed models for Africa and South America.

Though a team of engineers from around the world was involved, the platform was put together at GM’s Opel research and development facility in Germany. Powertrains, safety features, standard equipment and chassis tuning will differentiate the regional brands and models. Some vehicles will share the same sheet metal with models sold in other regions, according to Peter Mertens, GM’s global compact architecture line executive. He added that, at least in terms of drivability, the variety of vehicles sharing a common heritage will not be clones.

“If you drive them next to each other, you will certainly see there is a difference in chassis performance between an Opel and a Chevy or between a Buick and a Chevy,” he said. “Each is engineered to compete against very specific competitors.”

The diversity possible out of this new architecture may help put GM on an equal footing with its international competitors down the line, but it raises the question of what Toyota and others will have on the market in the intervening years. All auto companies are scrambling to get higher-mileage models to the U.S. with demand so high, but the long product planning time involved in the auto industry makes it hard for any company to quickly overhaul its line-up.