How does a brand new mid-sized sedan with a range of up to 500 miles sound to you?
That’s what GM (NYSE: GM) will be rolling out next summer. The 2015 Chevy Impala will be the Detroit motor house’s first foray into a car powered by natural gas. And to alleviate any concerns that come with that, you can switch to gasoline whenever you want with the simple push of a button.
The company announced the new vehicle Wednesday. The driver is offered 150 miles of range on compressed natural gas (CNG), and when range anxiety kicks in and you just can’t find a fueling station for the life of you, you’ve got an additional 350 miles on gasoline to spare.
The bi-fuel, duel tank Impala will be sold to both retail and fleet customers.
The Impala is GM’s answer to other natural gas vehicles that run solely on natural gas, doing what GM’s Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid does for all-electric vehicles. In the Volt, drivers get about 40 miles on electricity before a gasoline engine kicks in.
Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, and emits less greenhouse gas – about 20 percent less – than the typical combustion engine vehicle.
With the U.S. shale boom in full swing, natural gas supplies have driven down prices and made it an attractive fuel alternative for vehicles.
Hitting the Streets
GM has not disclosed the price for the bi-fuel Impala, but regular versions of its popular model start right around $27,000.
There still aren’t many vehicles that are using CNG. Most of the ones that are on the road have private converter systems.
GM’s current product lineup has natural gas vans and pickup trucks that use the same technology, but those have only been offered to fleet customers. Now we’re going to find models like these on the retail menu.
An owner of one of these vehicles can save $10,000 or more in fuel costs over a three-year period just by using CNG over gasoline.
There are only about 130,000 to 135,000 natural gas vehicles operating in the U.S., according to Reuters, while there are more than 16 million worldwide – most of which are used commercially and for fleet vehicles like buses and garbage trucks.
Honda Motor Co (NYSE: HMC) has a CNG-powered Civic. Ford Motor Co (NYSE: F) will be setting some of its models up to be able to convert to CNG, including its top-selling F-Series pickup truck.
But Europe has seen the most success. Honda sold its CNG Civic for years in Europe. Volkswagen (OTC: VLKAY) also had success with natural gas in Europe, and it is working on a natural gas option across its entire lineup. Fiat (OTC: FIATY) sells more CNG vehicles than any other company in Europe.
In Italy, about 5 percent of all vehicles use CNG.
In the U.S., the main reason we’re not seeing as many CNG-fueled vehicles comes down to infrastructure.
There are about 1,350 natural gas refueling stations here in the U.S., about half of which are open to the public, according to Reuters – not nearly enough to support an entire country. Meanwhile, there are 168,000 or so gasoline stations around the country. Because of this, the natural gas vehicles don’t sell.
GM is only offering its new Impala in small numbers, mostly to commercial and government fleets, but that seems to be fine for now. GM says that if it can sell just 1,000 units in its first year, that would be a “home run.”
GM has also publicly called for the Obama administration and Congress to create a consumer-driven national energy policy. That’s, of course, if they have time in between shutdowns. As the American people become more familiar with and accepting of CNG, GM has stated that a 30-year energy policy would strengthen efforts towards a cleaner, more efficient standard on our roadways.
The appointed commission to handle such a framework would include energy producers, labor groups, and consumers.
For now, it’s just wishful thinking.
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Future Natural Gas Investments
GM will start to include its bi-fuel technology in versions of its heavy-duty Chevy Silverado and its GMC Sierra pickup truck, and it will have natural gas versions of its Chevy Express and GMC Savana passenger van.
The 2015 Impala, besides advantages in range, also provides enough trunk space to keep owners happy – something that has been difficult for CNG vehicles in the past because of the large tank size.
The Impala will be a re-design of the 2014 model, which Consumer Report named this year’s best sedan in the U.S.
CNG vehicles must meet tough U.S. fuel efficiency requirements, but it’s starting to happen. With cars like the 2015 Chevy Impala out on the road, billions of gallons of gasoline will be saved and the environment will be better for it.
In China, more than 90 percent of the taxis run on CNG, and the nation’s overall natural gas fleet is expected to hit 1.5 million in 2015.
Worldwide, the rate of growth is expected to be 30 percent annually.
GM has increased its investment in natural gas powertrains, as they satisfy both “green” needs and those of its stockholders.
GM Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson said it best on Wednesday. According to Bloomberg, he was discussing the new Impala when he said, “There will be nothing like it on the road – literally.”
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