American automakers have never been fond of small cars. But could the compact car segment be ripe for a revolution? That’s the sense we got after spending some time in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.

American automakers have never been fond of small cars. But could the compact car segment be ripe for a revolution?

That’s the sense we got after spending some time in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. What we experienced supports the idea that this new Chevy could displace its Japanese rivals as the benchmark to beat.

Like many of the latest products coming to market, designers opted for a coupelike shape to the roofline. Overall, the 2011 Chevy Cruze appears a bit larger and more upscale than you’d expect, a welcome change from the tiny-looking Cobalt it replaces.

But the real surprise comes when you climb inside. Front and back, the sedan proves pleasantly spacious, with more than enough headroom for anyone not on an NBA team. There’s also a reasonable amount of front and even rear legroom in a model that could just nudge into the EPA’s midsize category based on interior space.

Domestic offerings have traditionally cut corners on interior design. With its new compact, Chevy has gone in precisely the opposite direction. The 2011 Cruze features a surprisingly lavish and well-executed cabin. There are a variety of materials offered, but our favorite is a sporty two-tone mesh. All Cruze models feature textured metal surfaces and a very appealing instrument cluster with a backlit chrome bezel.

Most surfaces are, meanwhile, soft to the touch, a sharp contrast to the segment’s dominant player, the Toyota Corolla.

Chevrolet is also targeting the Japanese on fuel economy, a serious factor for compact buyers. While federally approved numbers haven’t been released yet, Chevrolet expects the Cruze Eco model to reach 40 mpg on the highway. The $18,995 Eco will deliver the same safety package as the rest of the lineup, which includes 10 airbags, StabiliTrak and standard OnStar. But a number of steps have been taken to trim the weight of what is a relatively hefty sedan.

The heart of the Eco is the 1.4-liter EcoTec Turbo engine, which makes 138 horsepower and 142 pound-feet of torque. Despite its mileage numbers, the Cruze Eco is no stone pony. It will launch from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds with the manual gearbox, and 9.1 seconds with the automatic. The EcoTec turbo will be used in about 70 percent of Cruze models, with a 1.8-liter I-4 to power the base, $16,995 Cruze LS.

The new rack-mounted electric power steering and the new Z-link rear suspension, meanwhile, translate into a car that’s fun to drive and holds its own even in tight corners.

It’s been decades since Detroit had a truly credible, competitive offering in the compact segment. But if our first drive of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is any indication, that’s about to change.

Paul A. Eisenstein is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the global auto industry. His work appears in a wide range of publications worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects automotive.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

Miles per gallon: 40 mpg highway (est.).
Engine options: 1.6-liter inline-4 Turbo EcoTec, 138 horsepower, 142 pound-feet torque.
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price $18,995.
Cost fully loaded: $28,000 (est.) for top-line, loaded Cruze LTZ.