Maybe it’s too far a leap in 2012; maybe it’s an opinion too divisive for ready acceptance among the general populace. Yet, if we know that the best pickup trucks are designed and built by Detroit’s three automobile manufacturers, why shouldn’t we believe that these same manufacturers will deliver to us the best compact cars in the very near future?

What Do The Numbers Say?

There’s evidence to suggest Ford and General Motors are already there. Lofty sales figures don’t necessarily equate with superior design, but if they did, we would have reason to believe that the Chevrolet Cruze was the best compact sedan on sale in America. 231,732 were sold in the United States in 2011. Chevrolet compact car sales were up 91% from 2010 levels. From April to September of 2011 the Cruze was the best-selling compact in America. In June, it was America’s best-selling car overall.

Admittedly, 2011 was a tough year for the typically dominant Japanese small cars. The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were hit hard by supply problems after March’s Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, the Ford Focus was not the popular car the Cruze was. 175,717 were sold, up 2%. Incidentally, Focus sales, too, were harmed by poor inventory – Ford insists they could have sold more Focus sedans and hatchbacks if only they had more to sell. Had customers been willing to locate their vehicle out of state and then used an auto shipping service they could have had the Focus they’d wanted earlier.

Nevertheless, we know outright sales volume does not indicate that a car is a very, truly, memorably good car. The Chevrolet Cavalier was a perpetual best seller in its day, but not a perpetually great car. So what evidence is there to suggest the Cruze and Focus are or will be winners on other objective and subjective fronts?

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Car & Driver, despite protestations regarding the Focus’s dual-clutch transmission, declared it to be one of their 10 Best cars. Pointing to “a sensational ride-handling balance” and “the best front-wheel-drive chassis on the road right now,” C/D didn’t reserve praise. In its year of eligibility, the Chevrolet Cruze won the AJAC’s Canadian Car Of The Year award. Of course, GM didn’t reserve the Cruze for Europe (as it has with some superior small cars in the past) but there are no plans to bring the Chevrolet Cruze Wagon to North America, a path that’s followed by numerous automakers.

The Focus and Cruze can both be equipped to reach 40 mpg on the highway, something the Toyota Corolla can’t come close to doing. There’s been no word from GM’s Dan Akerson or Ford’s Alan Mulally to match what’s been declared by Honda’s CEO Takanobu Ito regarding the Civic.

After the Civic’s poor critical reception and initially lackluster sales performance, Ito said, “The ultimate responsibility rests with me.” The Mazda 3 is a fun car to drive, but in a comparison test from last year, it was two decibels louder than the Chevrolet Cruze and a decibel louder while cruising, speaking to the Chevy’s more thorough refinement. The Hyundai Elantra was substantially slower to 60 mph in the same test.

What’s On The Table Beside Numbers?

Numbers aren’t everything, of course, not just in regards to sales but performance data and even EPA fuel economy ratings. Small car goodness is based as much on reputation and consistency over the years as it is on futuristic powerplant technology and awe-inspiring interior space. Ford let consumers down when the first-generation Focus wasn’t replaced for eons. And after GM attempted to hype the Cobalt by mentioning things like its expensive German-inspired fluid-filled, two-chamber hydraulic dampers, the car itself was wooden and uninspired.

One generation in, few critics are ready to suggest that the Focus and Cruze, by themselves, make America the premiere builder of small cars, even if the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic are fun in their own right. But with a little help from the handsome 2013 Dodge Dart – it’s available with an engine named Tigershark and can be painted one of 12 different colours – and equally better-than-before replacements in three or four years, we’ll always be looking to Detroit for the next great small car, rather than the place where your next Enterprise rental began life.

Speaking of the Dart, official pricing for the Americanized Italian compact isn’t yet available, but just this week launched the Dart configurator with preliminary pricing. The SE should start around $16,800, the SXT at $18,700, Rallye at $19,900, Limited at $20,600, and the Dart R/T at $23,000. An automatic will cost an extra $1000.

Are the best small cars American cars? At the risk of sounding fearful of committing to a controversial answer… it’s too early to say. Will the best small cars be American cars? Yes, if the trend continues, yes.

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