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Natural-gas vehicle selection and availability picks up

Consumer Reports News: March 13, 2012 04:38 PM

Over the last several days, there have been numerous automotive announcements related to compressed-natural gas (CNG). This energy source is abundant and affordable in the United States, it can be used in existing vehicles with relatively few modifications, and it contributes to reduced reliance on foreign oil as much as electric vehicles. Various automakers have lately revealed CNG-compatible trucks. Why now? There are several good reasons, led by product scheduled to take advantage lower fuel prices and potential federal incentives.

  • General Motors will begin taking retail orders for bi-fuel CNG and gasoline versions of its Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD and GMC Sierra 2500 HD extended-cab pickups on April 1. The large CNG tanks are concealed inside what looks like a toolbox in the front of the truck bed. The trucks are available with long or short beds in two- or four-wheel drive with a 6.0-liter V8. GM has not released horsepower or range figures, but the automaker says that counting gasoline and CNG together, the truck will have a range of “over 650 miles.” They will be outfitted with the CNG tanks and a bi-fuel injection system at a GM supplier and will carry the brand’s full warranty. But the trucks won’t be delivered until December.

  • Chrysler also announced a few more details on its own natural-gas bi-fuel Ram 2500 HD pickup, which will be available only for fleets starting in July. Available only as a crew-cab pickup, its CNG tanks will hold the equivalent of 18.2 gallons of gas. With a 5.7-liter Hemi V8, that will give the Ram a range of 255 miles. An 8-gallon gasoline tank serves as a backup, giving another 112 miles of range. (Canadian customers can order a 35-gal. gas tank.)

  • Honda is asking its dealerships across the United States to install CNG filling stations to refuel the Civic GX, the only natural-gas powered (not bi-fuel) car on the market.

  • Ford has also expanded its lineup of natural-gas vehicles in the past couple of years, which now includes the Transit Connect small van, the E-150 full-sized van, and various versions of its Super Duty pickups and several heavy-duty trucks (as well as a motor home chassis).

2012-Honda-Civic-GX-CNG-f.jpgOne of the main sticking points for natural-gas-powered cars in America has been the difficulty of finding a place to refuel. When we tested our own natural-gas-powered Civic in 2007, we had to drive more than 30 miles to a refueling station, thus slashing about a third of the car’s real-world range for a round trip. There were only three public access stations in all of Connecticut. In making the announcement, Honda said it was trying to do what it could to expand the infrastructure in the absence of natural-gas stations on every corner. Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said Chrysler is also trying to promote a market for building more refueling stations by selling the trucks to fleets, whose corporate owners could maintain their own filling stations.

The lack of refueling infrastructure has become a more major issue as the prices of gasoline and natural gas have diverged this year. While the national average price of gasoline has risen 12 cents since last month, to about $4 a gallon, based on increased price of oil stemming from Middle East conflict, the price of an equivalent gallon of natural gas is only $2.13 cents, according to the Department of Energy. And most analysts think the price of natural gas is likely to stay low, thanks to big increases in U.S. reserves.

In a survey conducted by Consumer Reports last fall, 25-percent of the adult driver respondents said they would consider CNG for their next vehicle. (Almost half said they’d consider a hybrid.) Clearly, there is interest in alternatives to increasingly expensive gasoline, though time will tell if consumers choose this option in significant numbers.

Learn more about CNG in our alternative fuels special section.

Eric Evarts

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