Years ago, I wrote a periodic column called “Test Drive.” In those days, vehicle manufacturers would give us a vehicle to drive for a week so that we could evaluate them and report on what we found. They never tried to influence our evaluations, and we could say anything we wanted.
During those years, I was able to drive Hummers, Mercedes, Volvos, BMWs and many more. But I’d have to say no vehicle I tested was more enjoyable than the one I drove a little over a week ago. It was a special test, of sorts, to try out a new Dodge Nitro that has been retrofitted by Dave Bell, owner of Dave’s Complete Auto Service in Centerville.
He’s not only gotten into the business of selling cars lately through his company, Never Better Auto Sales, he’s also been refitting some of them with a natural gas system, making them dual-fuel vehicles. The technology actually amazed me.
His crew of experts put an extra carbon-fiber natural gas tank in the rear cargo area that holds up to 3,600 pounds of pressure. The natural gas can be refilled at a special pump at RB’s One Stop on 500 South just west of I-15. It’s one of more than 20 natural gas stations in Utah. Dave Bell told me that every fill-up costs less than $10, but try as I might, I could never even get the cost of a refill to reach as high as $5.
The last time I paid that little at the pump I was about 17.
I’ll have to admit that I really didn’t get 98 mpg with the Dodge Nitro. But that’s about the mileage that a gasoline powered vehicle would have to achieve to match the cost per mile by driving on natural gas – which costs about 85 cents per gallon.
Because a tank of natural gas can propel the vehicle for just under 200 miles, and because there isn’t a natural gas pump at every corner, the Nitro still comes with a full-size gasoline tank. If the natural gas is getting low, no problem, just switch to gasoline and keep going.
I wondered just how easy that would be in real life, so Bell and his crew showed me. They simply pushed an unassuming little button on the dash, labeled “G.” Instantly the vehicle was running on gasoline without skipping a beat. I even tried this running down the road, and it was still seamless and easy as pie.
The whole apparatus is a complex system of pipes, valves and controls operated by a computer. That means the driver doesn’t have to do much except drive, with the vehicle figuring out the rest.
The installation is complex, but the equipment fits under the hood and into existing spaces, so there’s almost nothing to hint that this vehicle burns natural gas.
At about $8,000 per vehicle conversion, it’s not exactly cheap, but the state offers a $2,500 tax credit that can help.
Yet it does take a lot of effort and testing to get each converted vehicle rolling. Once all the equipment is installed, technicians hook up laptop computers and test systems to the vehicle’s onboard computer, driving it around for about five hours until the computer settings have been tweaked to give the vehicle optimum performance matched to the owner’s driving style.
The result is that you just get in and drive. There’s really nothing else that distinguishes driving this vehicle from any other, except the cost of refueling.
I was told that the vehicle’s performance was slightly less peppy with natural gas than with regular gasoline, and I found this to be true. But the difference was so slight that it was very hard to tell. I drove the Nitro up the hills to Eaglewood and up the Avenues in Salt Lake City and never lacked for power, even on the steepest hills.
In short, I found that driving around the area at the equivalent of 98 mpg or so was exhilarating. And easy on the environment.
I tried Dave’s test of smelling the exhaust pipe when it was running on natural gas. All that I could tell coming out was water vapor and no exhaust smell. The odor was more like that emanating from a steam iron.
And there’s one more kicker. With clean burning natural gas, the engine lasts longer because it doesn’t have to contend with hydrocarbon build-up. A 250,000-300,000 mile engine life isn’t uncommon.
And that means the savings from driving natural gas will last three times as long, helping the investment in technology really pay off.