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By Anita And Paul Lienert
The Detroit News
July 17, 1996
Finding an alternative-fuel vehicle can be as difficult as ordering a vegetarian entree in a Kansas City steak house. And that may bother you, especially if you're worried about smog, global warming or the fact that U.S. cars and trucks burn 240,000
gallons of gasoline every minute. Oh, sure, General Motors is bringing out the EV1, its first production electric car, in the fall, but you won't be able to buy it or service it unless you live in California or Arizona. That's why we were
so excited to test-drive the 1996 Ford Crown Victoria NGV (for "natural gas vehicle"). It's an interesting alternative in a gasoline-powered marketplace, but be forewarned - you're going to feel like a pioneer if you buy one. He: So tell me what
the big deal is here. You jump in the car, turn the key, fire up the engine and away you go. I love Crown Vics anyway, but unless you lifted the trunk lid or ran out of fuel, you'd be hard-pressed to tell much difference between the natural-gas model and
the garden-variety Crown Vic. She: That's what makes it so great. You get the same rumble and roar that you do with the conventional gas engine, and you don't really sacrifice anything in terms of fuel economy. The two biggest problems are range
and availability of fuel. Plus there are some subtle price wars going on. He: I'm not even sure where I'd go to refuel a natural-gas car, or how much it would cost. Those would be the biggest potential bugaboos to me. She: In the Detroit
area, we'll have at least four natural-gas refueling stations by the end of August. There are 25 altogether in Michigan, including some high-traffic locations like the Meijer store in Jackson. Now you can't be an airhead about this type of vehicle. You've
got to know that you only get about 240 to 250 miles on a tankful - about 100 miles less than in a conventional Crown Vic. He: That's still a lot better, by a factor of two or three, than the range on the typical electric cars that are beginning
to hit the streets. Plus you get the roominess of the Crown Vic, which is still one of the biggest cars on the road. Considering it weighs nearly 2 tons and can carry up to six adults, that's not bad mileage. It will get you from Detroit to Lansing and
back on a tankful. She: I was worried about the price of natural gas and how it compares with regular gasoline, partly because natural gas prices are all over the map right now, depending on which station you go to. The ones controlled by MichCon,
our local gas company, tend to run about 80 cents a gallon. Independent gas station owners want the price to be more in line with regular gasoline, and they're pricing it around 93 cents a gallon. But I have good news for consumers: You can buy a $3,000
"fuel maker" from MichCon that hooks up to your natural-gas line at home and you can fill up overnight for about 30-40 cents a gallon. There's always a way around roadblocks like this, especially if you're an e
nvironmental activist. He: I would have never guessed you were a closet tree-hugger. She: Well, I've come out of the closet today. But it wasn't easy. Because I had real safety fears about a natural-gas vehicle. I was worried about the
tanks blowing up. And I was worried about whether I'd have to stick a carbon-monoxide detector on the dash. Turns out my worries are unfounded. He: You clearly never saw the movie "Dr. Strangelove," did you? Remember the subtitle - "How I Learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." She: I didn't need to see the movie. But it helped to talk to the MichCon people. They said it would be pretty hard to hurt the natural-gas tanks. The federal government has dropped them from airplanes, run
them over with bulldozers, shot at them and thrown them in fires, and they're fairly impervious to abuse. Also, unlike regular gasoline, natural gas is lighter than air and vents into the atmosphere, so there is little danger from lingering fum
If you want to know the truth, one of my disappointments is here's this environmentally hip package in an old fogy's car. He: Oh, I'm really hurt. You know I've always been fond of the Crown Vic. She: You also still like Burger King
Whoppers, and they're not politically correct either. He: Some people like that extra sense of security they get from having all that sheet metal around them, and they like the power of the overhead-cam V-8, which doesn't lose much in the
conversion to natural gas. It still makes 178 horsepower, compared with 190 for the regular engine. And Ford has done a nice job of tuning the car's rear-wheel-drive chassis, which is supple without feeling marshmallowy. The steering is surprisingly
responsive, and you also get loads of standard equipment, all for under $25,000. My biggest gripe is that antilock brakes and traction control, which are must-have features on the Crown Vic, cost an extra $670. She: If you're still wondering why
Ford decided to start putting natural-gas engines in Crown Vics, it was initially aimed at police and utility fleets. The city of Wixom, where Ford builds most of its big Lincolns, is running most of its Ford cop cars on natural gas. However, by the end
of the summer, consumers will be able to buy a natural-gas-powered Ford Contour. That package should be easier to market to environmentally conscious yuppies. To say nothing of the fact that you can also get a natural-gas Chrysler minivan. He:
Somehow I can't picture Peter Sellers or Slim Pickens driving a minivan. She: I couldn't imagine myself driving any kind of a natural-gas vehicle either. But it's beginning to make more and more sense. Natural gas is made in America - 95 percent
of the natural gas used in the United States comes from the United States. And can you imagine if we all made the switch? There'd be none of this talk about defending our oil-related military interests overseas. I think Ford is on the right track with
this one. 1996 Ford Crown Victoria NGV Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive sedan. Price: Base, $21,050; as tested, $24,805 (inc. $605 destination charge, less $5,055 in package discounts). What's new for '96: New
optional engine powered by natural gas, color-keyed steering wheel. Standard equipment: Tilt steering wheel, trip odometer, air conditioning, rear-window defroster, map pockets, sound insulation package, power windows, rear heat ducts, split bench
seat with center fold-down arm rests, battery saver, power disc brakes, headlamps-on reminder chime. Safety features: Dual air bags, rear-door child safety latches. Options on test vehicle: Preferred equipment package 111A, including floor
mats, radial spoke wheel covers, speed control, power locks, spare tire cover and illuminated entry ($960); 4.6-liter V-8 natural gas engine ($6,165); antilock brakes and traction control ($670); AM/FM stereo with cassette ($185);
light/decor group ($225). EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Engine: 4.6-liter V-8 natural gas engine; 178-hp at 4500 rpm; 237 lb-ft torque at 3500 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Competitors: None.
Specifications: Wheelbase, 114.4 inches; overall length, 212 inches; curb weight (base model), 3780 pounds; legroom, 42.5 inches front/ 39.6 inches rear; headroom, 39.4 inches front/38 inches rear; shoulder room, 60.8 inches front/60.3 inches
rear. 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $919. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar
discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts. Where built: St. Thomas, Ontario.