A Chevy Impala That Goes 500 Miles On A Tank? With Natural Gas, It's Possible

Capitalizing on America's abundant supply of clean-burning, low-cost natural gas, General Motors GM +0.9% said Wednesday it will build a Chevrolet Impala sedan that can operate on either gasoline or compressed natural gas and travel up to 500 miles between fill-ups.

The bi-fuel Impala, which goes on sale summer as a 2015 model, could be the start of something big. Honda Motor HMC -0.1% has been selling a natural gas-powered Civic since 2011 and while still modest, sales have been steadily rising. The Japanese carmaker is on track to sell about 2,500 CNG Civics this year, up from 1,900 in 2012 and 1,200 the year before. In July, Ford Motor F +0.4% said its most popular vehicle, the F-150 pickup, will be offered with a compressed natural gas engine starting in the 2014 model year.

"Natural gas will grow increasingly attractive as an alternative fuel source, as we've seen each year with natural gas Honda Civic sales, particularly in areas like California where HOV lane access is available," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "The lack of infrastructure remains a hurdle, but if more automakers begin to offer CNG-powered vehicles, we could see a greater push for access to CNG in the years to come."

The Impala's bi-fuel powertrain is engineered to switch seamlessly from CNG to gasoline, which should reassure consumers worried about finding a place to refuel. For business fleet customers, whose drivers return to a central location, CNG refueling shouldn't be a problem. GM did not announce the new car's price, which is likely to be higher than the standard gas model, but savings at the pump could offset that extra payout quickly.

Natural gas produces about 20 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline-powered cars, according to the California Air Resources Board. It is also significantly cheaper. CNG sells for an average of $2.11 per gallon of gasoline equivalent, and as little as $1 in some parts of the country. The national average for unleaded regular gasoline is $3.36.

For those in states like California, Oklahoma and Utah who have been converting older vehicles to CNG for years, the new bi-fuel Impala offers an opportunity to upgrade to a modern vehicle with navigation, Bluetooth and advanced safety systems. Said Eric Ibara, another Kelley Blue Book analyst: "There is a lot of buzz around CNG right now. With more infrastructure, I wouldn't be surprised to see an increasing number of CNG vehicles on the road."

GM chief executive Dan Akerson announced the bi-fuel Impala during remarks at an energy summit marking the 40th anniversary of the OPEC Oil Embargo. "We know that U.S. energy security won't come from a one-off moonshot," Akerson said. "It will flow from our systematic investment in technology and innovation… our drive to get more from existing energy sources and renewables… our commitment to conservation… and it will be assured by fully and safely exploiting our shale gas reserves."

Akerson used the occasion to reiterate his call for a comprehensive national energy policy.

This article was first published by Forbes.

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