Ten years ago I test drove the then new to North America Ford Focus ZTS. “Give it some gas,” the salesman prodded as we entered a freeway onramp. I showed her the whip. “Can you feel that,” he yelled enthusiastically over the buzz of the straining engine. “Well, it’s certainly making a lot of noise,” I thought, “but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere very fast.” A decade later it’s deja vu all over again, except my copilot has the good sense not to pretend that this 2009 Focus is any kind of street demon. And rather than fouling the atmosphere with noxious gasoline exhaust, birds are singing and bees are sweetly humming as I explore the green virtues of driving with Compressed Natural Gas.
My test car, provided by Zeit Energy of Dallas, Texas, is a bestickered homage to the company and the natural gas industry. Other than the black beauty mark on its right rear heinie (the CNG refueling receptacle), it is the same kaleidoscope of geometric shapes that is the Ford Focus.
The S-trim package is a throw-back to the good old days of manual doors locks and window cranks – perfect for the fleet buyers that are most likely to delve into the realm of natural gas powered vehicles. The ergonomics are perfectly satisfactory in every respect for a vehicle at this price point. The car’s greatest feature is the five-speed manual stick shift that’s smooth, accurate and forgiving.
The only indication this car isn’t like all the rest is a square regulator control button at the base of the center console that glows green or orange, depending on the fuel pressure, and reads NG or OFF, to indicate whether the engine is drawing natural gas form the CNG tank or unnatural gas from the gasoline tank. A progress bar below the NG indicates how much CNG is left.
The bi-fuel CNG conversion kit, manufactured by Altech-Eco Corporation of South Carolina, operates seamlessly in the background. For the most part drivers simply sit behind the wheel, turn the key, and drive it like any other car. If the system determines that the CNG tank is empty a computer controlled regulator switches to gasoline.
The 9.1 gallon CNG tank is made of half-inch aluminum reinforced in a cocoon of fiberglass is as subtle as Akebono Tarō in a dohyō. It has to be in order to contain the gas, which is 90% methane, at 2900-3200 pounds per square inch. But the weight devours the 140 hp 2.0-liter Duratec I4 engine. Be sure to make reservations before attempting to merge into traffic.
The tank resides in the trunk. It dominates the trunk. Not to reinforce the unsubstantiated fear that the CNG tanks can rupture explosively in an accident, but when the trunk is wide open it looks like Bruce the shark in his final scene in Jaws.
With both fuel tanks filled, the car averages about 35 mpg and has a cruising range in excess of 700 miles. That’s a good thing because public CNG refilling stations are few and far between. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there are only eight of them. These high-pressure CNG fueling stations can fill the 9.1 gallon tank in about the same amount of time it takes a gasoline pump to fill the 13 gallon petrol tank.
My tester cost Zeit Energy $12,500 for the Focus and $9500 for the conversion kit and installation. The Focus with an EPA certified CNG kit like this one qualifies for a $4000 federal tax credit, so the net cost of the upgrade was $5500. In other words, you would pay $18,000 for a $12,500 car that is slower and has a fraction of the trunk space of the original. That’s a hard sell for most people. Currently in DFW, an equivalent amount of CNG costs about $0.50 less than a gallon of regular gasoline so you would have to drive 385,000 miles burning only CNG to recoup the investment.
Owners would have to take consolation in the fact that CNG emissions are fee of lead and benzene, and produce 70% less carbon monoxide, 87% less nitrogen oxide, and 20% less carbon dioxide.
The bottom line is that right now CNG-powered vehicles are not ready for Prime Time in America. The EPA has its boot on the throat of natural gas transportation. How? It requires a $10,000 annual fee per engine type per year of manufacture. These fees ensure that few shops will offer installation and that prices will remain impractically high for those that do.
As for the Ford Focus CNG? If you want to conserve gasoline at an affordable price, you would be much happier with a Honda Insight.
[Car and fuel were provided by Patrick Zeiter of Zeit Energy.]