Chevrolet Cruze
It was going to be difficult for GM to make a car worse than the model that the Cruze replaced -- the spare, utilitarian, economy-sized Cobalt -- but it would be similarly tough to think of a better replacement. Packed with 10 standard airbags, stability control, antilock brakes, plush seating, free OnStar for the first six months, free XM satellite radio for the first three, keyless entry and available Bluetooth, the Cruze presented offerings on par with competitors such as the Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus while forever burying the no-frills Cobalt, whose interior panels clunked when drivers hit a pothole.

"When you look back at some of the GM vehicles from five years ago, especially in the smaller segment, they just felt cheaper, frankly," J.D. Power's Sargent says. "They've done a good job of making vehicles feel more expensive and of higher quality without spending a whole lot of money on them."

That investment paid off, as the Chevy Cruze has sold more than 75,000 units so far this year, making the less-than year-old vehicle Chevrolet's best-selling car and the second-best-selling GM model behind the Chevy Silverado pickup truck. By comparison, only 51,000 Cobalts were sold by this time last year.

More importantly, however, the Cruze has enough power behind it to get ahead of rising gas prices. Chevy credited the compact's 26 miles per gallon city and 36 highway for increasing sales as average gas prices approached $4 a gallon. Car buyers who paid the extra $2,000 for the Cruze's "eco" package -- it starts at $18,000 -- got a slightly better deal at the pump, as that model's fuel economy jumps to a hybridlike 26 miles per gallon city and 42 highway at a time U.S. drivers need it most.

"Vehicles like the Cruze are necessary in general because people are becoming more aware of the environment, wanting to become more fuel-efficient and wanting to reduce their dependency on petroleum fuels," TrueCar's Schaffels says. "Not everybody wants to go to a hybrid or electric car, but Chevrolet has the advantage of being able to offer the Volt and the high-mileage gasoline engine -- that's also a well-featured vehicle that people don't get into and feel like they're in a penalty box."

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