DETROIT – Big engines that selectively deactivate cylinders to improve fuel economy turned into a disaster in the early 1980s when General Motors Corp. first tried the idea.

But now that the technology has been improved and debugged, auto makers from GM to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. are racing to introduce it once again. (See related story: Honda Launching Hybrid Accord)

The technology is seen as an efficient way to significantly improve fuel economy without compromising the horsepower or vehicle size U.S. consumers continue to demand.

The Chrysler Group is the latest to join the race, announcing Monday at the North American International Auto Show that its ’05 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum cars equipped with its 5.7L Hemi Magnum overhead-valve V-8 will feature a “multi-displacement system” that will improve fuel economy 10% to 20%.

At a press conference introducing the new vehicles, Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche bragged Chrysler will be first to market contemporary cylinder-deactivation technology.

Both Chrysler’s models with MDS-equipped Hemi V-8s are due out this spring, while GM and Honda vehicles featuring the technology are not expected until summer or fall.

In an interview with Ward's editors, Dieter Zetsche says the technology also likely will appear on Hemi-equipped light trucks such as the Dodge Ram fullsize pickup and Durango, but he declined to be specific about timing.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com