General Motors Co said on Wednesday its Chevrolet Cruze small car was on track to exceed 50,000 U.S. sales in the first quarter, aided by demand in markets usually dominated by imports.

That's a really good number, IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland said. If they can keep that pace up, that's a really big hit for them in the small-car segment.

While the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid gets more attention, the Cruze is GM's high-volume answer to critics who have said the company was unprepared the last time U.S. gas prices reached $4 per gallon.

It is also GM's answer to the plea made by then President elect Barack Obama in the early days of the U.S. auto industry overhaul in 2008 when he asked, Why can't they make a Corolla? The Corolla is the popular small car built by Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>.

GM said the Cruze, which gets about 40 miles per gallon on the highway, is also important because it is attracting buyers to the Chevrolet brand.

This was an area of the market where frankly we were not at our strongest, said Alan Batey, vice president of sales and service for Chevrolet.

The 4-cylinder market is one that's been extremely large and frankly we've been under-represented in it, he said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

The compact car segment makes up about 15 percent of global vehicle sales, Batey said.

Cruze was launched overseas in late 2009 and in the United States in September 2010. It replaced the Chevrolet Cobalt in the U.S. market and other models overseas.

Through February, GM sold more than 32,000 Cruze cars in the United States. March results, which are due to be announced on Friday, will push it above 50,000, Batey said.

Toyota and Honda Motor Co Ltd <7267.T> have dominated the segment with the Corolla and Civic. Through February, the Corolla had more than 35,000 sales and Civic almost 34,000.

However, with fewer incentives on the Cruze and a marketing campaign that was concentrated on the beginning of the year, Batey acknowledged that March sales for Cruze would be below February's 18,556.

In the first quarter last year, GM sold 21,144 of the Cobalt, and many of those were less profitable fleet sales. Through February, Cruze sales made up 21 percent of GM's total cars sold in the United States.

Today, we're selling a lot bigger number, but we're also selling three times more to retail than we were a year ago, Batey said.

Globally, GM expects to sell about 150,000 Cruzes in the first quarter, pushing it past the Chevy Silverado pickup truck as the top seller for the brand, Batey said. Last year, GM sold more than 365,000 Cruzes in more than 90 countries.

Batey emphasized Cruze's success in attracting new buyers to GM in markets where import cars are typically strong. First-quarter Cruze sales compared to Cobalt are expected to be 370 percent higher in California, 230 percent higher in Florida and 225 percent higher in New York.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman)