Chrysler Eyeing Natural Gas for Ram Truck Lineup

By John O'Dell February 10, 2011

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Chrysler Group, whose controlling stakeholder is the world's leader in fielding cars and trucks that run on natural gas, says it is considering compressed natural gas powertrains for its Ram truck lineup.

The company, like Ford and General motors, made CNG trucks and vans until 1998, primarily for fleet buyers and to meet government clean fuel mandates.

All three companies stopped producing CNG vehicles (Ford and GM kept going for a few years after Chrysler dropped out) when the rules changes to favor flex-fuel vehicles that could use gasoline or ethanol.

With a renewed national interest in reducing dependence on imported oil, and a push in congress to promote home-grown fuels such as natural gas, we've been expecting all three companies to get back into the game.

Presently, only Honda makes a natural gas car for sale in the U.S. - the Civic GX, sold in only four states. The company recently announced that it intends to broaden sales to all 50 states  with the launch of the redesigned 2012 Civic lineup..

Both Ford and GM, though, recently introduced CNG trucks into their lineups, aimed at the commercial fleet market.

Chrysler is likely to follow, perhaps even to take the lead in production volume, because Italy's Fiat, which owns 25 percent of the company and calls the shots there, makes lots of CNG vehicles for the European market, where it has an 80 percent share of the nat-gas passenger car market and an almost 55 percent share of the light truck market.

"I'm eager and very interested to see what we can do with CNG in our truck applications, Chrysler's Ram brand manager, Fred Diaz, said in an interview with Bloomberg news service at the Chicago Auto Show this week.

As a fuel, compressed natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline or ethanol, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

It doesn't provide a fuel economy boost over gasoline, however,  and depending on how a vehicle's engine is set up can result in drop in performance, particularly acceleration from zero to 60. But it can be 20 percent to 60 percent cheaper than gasoline at retail pumps and reduces periodic engine maintenance because it doesn't contain the impurities that leave deposits in a gasoline engine.

A major drawback for consumer acceptance of natural gas vehicles is cost - the $25,490 Civic GX is priced  $7,500 more than its gasoline counterpart - and the the spotty distribution of natural gas fuel stations across the country. Most are in the West and Northeast and because many are owned by private and government fleets that use CNG vehicles, not all are open to the public. Some states have no natural gas pumps at all, according to  U.S. Energy Department's alternative fuels locator.

Chrysler joined the Natural Gas Vehicles Assn. late last year - a clue as to the company's thinking.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of both Fiat and Chrysler, said last summer that natural gas "is the most effective solution, in terms of cost and timing, to lessen this country's reliance on oil."

The U.S. in 2009 became the world leader in natural gas production, according to estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency, but it ranks 14th in the world for natural gas cars and trucks on the road, according to the International Assn. for Natural Gas Vehicles.

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