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Test Drive: Life On the Road With Natural Gas

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Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
After we found a filling station, recharging the CNG tanks took less than 10 minutes.
Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
What happens when the truck runs out of CNG? We test the truck's electronic fuel controls.
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Fuel prices continue to cut into construction budgets, so fleet owners are looking at alternatives, such as natural gas.

I wanted to know what it would be like to live with compressed natural gas. Last month, Chrysler lent me a 2012 Ram 2500 Heavy Duty CNG, new this year. In one week, I logged over 200 miles in both highway and city driving.

Filling up with CNG was dirt cheap, and it delivered an adequate level of power. Fuel delivery is transparent and seamless. My Ram was a "bifuel" pickup, meaning it can run on gas or natural gas. This option makes CNG more palatable because gasoline acts as a range extender.

The downsides? The initial cost is high, ringing up at about $11,000 more than the gasoline model but not much higher than a diesel. Fueling infrastructure is limited, but we didn't find it difficult to find a pump. CNG tanks need to be inspected every three years and discarded every 15 years. The cargo space is reduced. Finally, it runs slightly louder because the engine is not shrouded in sound attenuators.

Driving Impressions

The test vehicle arrived topped off with both fuels. Taking up more than a third of the eight-ft-long cargo space was a steel box housing two 130-liter steel pressure bottles, equivalent to 18.2 gallons of gasoline. Ram chose this arrangement so that the CNG package sits flush with the bed, allowing owners to stack accessories on it.

The CNG Ram comes only in a long-bed, crew-cab configuration. The stretched wheelbase makes for stressful U-turn and parking scenarios. My truck had a rearview camera and backup sensor, which helped me keep my cool.

The rig comes with a hardened 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 and part-time four-wheel drive. While the base price is $47,500, the window sticker was an eye-popping $57,745, due to creature comforts.

A small, eight-gallon gas tank is standard. The truck is rated for 255 miles on CNG and 112 miles on gas. Ram engineers told me they decided, based on fleet interviews, to downsize the gas tank, encouraging drivers to use CNG and increasing the payback period. A 35-gallon gas tank is optional.

Originally, Chrysler designed the Ram to fire up on gasoline and then switch to CNG. However, it now starts up on CNG and automatically switches when the bottles run dry. In colder seasons, it will start on gasoline for an initial warm-up.

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