CHELSEA, Mich. (Reuters) -- Chrysler gave automotive journalists a sneak peek on Thursday at its all-new Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck, which comes equipped with fuel-saving technology and goes on sale in the fall.
The U.S. arm of Germany's DaimlerChrysler took the wraps off the truck, which is key to its future profits, at its closely guarded proving grounds in this rural town west of Detroit.
Like the model it replaces, the rugged 2006 Ram packs a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine, which generates 345 horsepower and gives Chrysler bragging rights as the maker of the most powerful light-duty pickup on the market.
But the new truck also comes with a standard cylinder deactivation system, which allows the engine to alternate seamlessly between V-8 mode and four-cylinder mode when less power is in demand.
Chrysler says the system, which it already offers on other vehicles including the Hemi-powered version of its 300 sedan, can improve fuel economy up to 20 percent.
That should be welcome news to consumers, as U.S. gasoline prices continue to hover near record highs.
Chrysler spokesman Colin McBean cautioned that fuel savings on the new truck, as gauged by what he called the conservative estimates of the Environmental Protection Agency, may only work out to about one mile per gallon, however.
Four-wheel-drive versions of the current Dodge Ram 1500 get a fuel-thirsty 13 miles per gallon in city driving and 17 miles on the highway.
Big pickups are bread-and-butter vehicles for Detroit's automakers and the Ram, Chrysler's best-selling truck, has long been a profit engine for the company.
The full Ram pickup line, including heavy-duty trucks, is also the volume leader at Chrysler, accounting for about 426,000 units of production last year, according to Jeff Brodoski, an analyst at J.D. Power and Associates.
U.S. sales of the Ram have slipped 7 percent so far this year, however, amid growing competition in the full-size pickup segment, and consumer incentives on the outgoing model were ratcheted up recently to $3,500 per vehicle.
"The segment is getting more and more crowded. The segment is getting more and more competitive," said Jim Hall, an analyst who tracks the auto industry at Autopacific Inc.
He said there was a potential for some customer dissatisfaction with the fuel savings on the new truck, since many drivers may fail to get the 20 percent boost in fuel economy.
But Hall added that Chrysler and its Dodge nameplate have a lot working for them with the Ram, however, which will have an even bolder "big rig" exterior than previous models and an all-new frame and suspension.
"Its got its own visual character that's sort of free and clear of the rest of the competitors," Hall said. "It means that you have the potential for loyalists who just like the way the damn thing looks, and that's always a plus."