Natural gas-powered Taurus: a test drive

by Chris Klein
have always been interested in alternative energy vehicles. So in April, when San Diego Gas and Electric offered to loan San Diego Earth Day a natural gas-powered 1990 Taurus for a 2-week test drive, I jumped at the chance.
Replacing gasoline with natural gas is an exciting possibility. Natural gas cars produce about 40 percent less hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Natural gas is safer - less of a fire hazard than gasoline. Also, the United States has lots of natural gas, reducing dependence on foreign (or even domestic) oil. [For more about natural gas, see the previous article].
The timing of their offer was perfect: my car had just broken down and would be in the shop for a while. With Earth Day activities in full swing, I had a chance to drive the car every day. Over the two weeks, I covered about 800 miles. This is the story of my experience.
I should say at the outset that I'm not really a car buff - it's just transportation. I'm also a relatively sedate driver, meaning I pretty much drive the speed limit. My top priority is that the car keep running with a minimum of fuss. "Enough power" is important. After that, "quiet" is nice, also "comfortable." "Good sound system" is a plus. "Can carry a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood" is a bonus. The Taurus scored five out of six - not bad (sorry, no plywood).

Looks aren't everything

From the outside, there's not much that indicates the car isn't a standard stock Taurus. That is, if you ignore the "NGV" logo and the banner that says "NATURAL GAS VEHICLE" on the doors. The only other outward signs are a small fueling nipple located on the front grill - more about that later.
Sitting behind the wheel, one finds two additions to the instrument panel: a gauge that indicates how much natural gas is left in the tank, and a toggle switch that instantaneously shifts between natural gas and gasoline. The only other modification is a small sticker admonishing you not to pump the accelerator when starting. No problem.
The only real surprise came when I tried to load some large boxes into the trunk. Well, I guess they had to put the natural gas tanks somewhere. Two large tanks took up about 80 percent of the space - still enough room for numerous small items, but luggage has to go in the back seat.
I was impressed with the tanks themselves: thick steel, wrapped with many layers of fiberglass and resin, like a round surfboard. The tanks were mounted away from the sides of the vehicle. From a safety standpoint, I would bet that an accident severe enough to rupture a tank wouldn't leave me in any condition to worry about it.

Hitting the road

So how did it drive? Just fine.
It was quite handy to have the changeover switch at my fingertips. I switched between natural gas and standard gasoline many times to see if I could detect any real differences. You can change while driving, and the engine doesn't skip a beat. (Just don't put the switch in the center "off" position. This is a lesson you learn rapidly.)
It might be interesting if I had some great 60 Minutes-style revelations about the car: neck-snapping acceleration, responding like molasses to an emergency stop, etc. But to tell the truth, it was just about impossible to tell the difference between the two fuels without looking at the changeover switch setting. The car drove well under all conditions.
I did notice what I consider to be two very minor differences. I live on a rather steep hill, and I noticed a little less hill-climbing power with natural gas. There also appears to be a little power loss as the natural gas tank empties - the last sixteenth or so. However, I consider this to be a non-issue. There was always plenty of power, and I only noticed the difference when I was paying attention.

Running on empty

The Taurus required relatively frequent natural gas refills. There are two reasons for this. First, the natural gas tanks don't hold as many "miles" of gas as the standard gasoline tank. The natural gas tanks hold about 9 gallons; the gasoline tank holds at least half again as much (I don't know exactly since I never ran the gasoline tank dry).
Second, a gallon of natural gas doesn't produce as much heat as a gallon of gasoline (your car's engine really runs on heat). This shows up as fewer "miles per gallon."
The Taurus' dashboard computer obligingly displays fuel economy. Overall, I got about 18 miles per gallon from natural gas, compared with about 20 - 21 miles per gallon from gasoline. Thus, the natural gas range is around 150 miles per fill-up, a little over half the gasoline range. So you spend more time at the pump.
When SDG&E isn't paying the fuel bill, cost is important. Currently, natural gas at the pump costs 75¢ per therm (therm?), which works out to $.885 per gallon. Compared with gasoline, this looks really great, until you remember the difference in miles per gallon. With a 15 percent performance premium, the "gasoline equivalent" cost is about $1.01. This still looks pretty good. The folks at SDG&E say you can expect to save 25¢ - 30¢ per gallon. I believe it.

Getting gassed

Fueling with natural gas is easy - and very different from gasoline. After paying (or using a special SDG&E fueling card, in my case), you click a special fitting at the end of a garden hose-like fuel line over the fueling nipple on the front grill. Next, you turn a valve on the fitting from the "vent" to the "on" position to start fueling.
With regular gasoline, a liquid, fueling stops abruptly when the tank is "full," and the gas has backed up into the filler, shutting off the flow. With natural gas, there is no abrupt stop; it just slows down as the tank fills. When the spinning numbers on the pump slow to a crawl, you turn the value from "on" to "vent," snap the fitting off the fueling nipple, and hang the hose back on the pump.
Overall, once you get the hang of it, fueling takes about the same time as with gasoline. It can take longer, if you want to wait for every cubic inch of natural gas the pump can deliver. I didn't.
There was one thing I really liked about natural gas fueling: no smell, no spill, no waste, no fumes ... nothing. The whole process was completely clean. Even with standard vapor recovery systems on gasoline pumps, you know you're not in a flower shop. A few drops always seem to make their way onto my shoes, or hands, or car filler cap. I can live without that.
Of course, first you have to find a natural gas pump. The car came with a list of about a dozen stations distributed around the county. Getting fuel was never a problem, since I was covering a lot of territory, but I had to plan my routes. They just aren't on every corner. SDG&E says there are currently 12 public fueling stations in San Diego, with plans to add eight per year for the next six years. (Using the SDG&E stations had the advantage that they picked up the tab. Don't expect this for your own natural gas vehicle.)

The bottom line

After using the natural gas car for two weeks, all I can say is: I want one. It works. All the pieces are in place to make this a viable alternative to gasoline.
The best part was driving with the knowledge that what was coming out of my tailpipe was about as toxic as the fumes from my kitchen's gas range.
One other thing. If you have "NATURAL GAS VEHICLE" painted on the side of your car, you find yourself talking to a lot of strangers who ask, "does it really run on natural gas?" It's a great conversation starter.

Chris Klein, a second generation San Diegan, is publisher of the Earth Times and a San Diego Earth Day organizer.