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Motornet: Ford's Gas Burner

For many, the idea of alternative fuel is likely to conjure up images of cardigan wearing Cortina drivers of the early 80s putting along on CNG. But Ford has a new car on the block and it doesn't run on petrol. Can they convince the unconverted?

I constantly amaze people at my ability to talk things automotive; sometimes I even amaze myself. Three o'clock in the morning seems a funny time to be discussing the merits of LPG versus petrol, but that is exactly what I found myself doing a few short weeks ago.

The taxi drivers name was Bob (I kid you not) and he was driving me and a few friends home after a particularly enthusiastic night on the town. I kicked things off by asking about his Falcon. Needing no further bidding he started in on his captive audience, explaining and gesturing enthusiastically about the many features his car contained. Although a few years old, Bob's Fairmont was in great condition and had only covered about 50,000 km. He had picked it up second hand for a good price and was impressed by its comfort and extras. When covering as many miles as he did, it was important to be able to have a trip computer to check mileage and fuel consumption, he said earnestly.

And that was when we got on to LPG. I guess it would be unfair to say that Bob was opposed to LPG, but he was hardly enthusiastic. He ‘uhhmed’ and ‘ahhed’ and began to shift uncomfortably in his seat as the conversation progressed – clearly the idea of alternative fuels not striking a chord with Bob. It seems for many years he was a taxi driver in Sydney, and while LPG was common, it was not well liked. Apparently, getting the motor tuned well for both fuels was next to impossible and you couldn't start the car on LPG. Of course, he said, that was a long time ago - 'perhaps things have changed?'

It was Bob's comments that ran through my mind as I hopped behind the wheel of Ford's dedicated LPG Falcon Futura. That word dedicated is important - it means that unlike some cars that have after market LPG tanks fitted, this Ford is factory equipped to run on LPG and LPG alone.

At $46,100, the LPG Futura is just $1,500 more than its petrol powered equivalent. It's a good looking car, with attractive 16" alloy wheels and a subtle but effective boot spoiler. Being a Futura (though it's available in base model Forte and wagon versions), it comes equipped with driver and front passenger air bags, ABS braking, remote central locking, single in-dash CD player with cassette and four speaker stereo, easy to use cruise control, and electric front windows with a handy key-off time delay to name but a few features.

The first thing you notice about the Falcon when you turn the key is that there is nothing to notice. The engine starts exactly like that of its petrol equivalent, if perhaps taking (at most) an extra half a crank to fire. Inside, you quickly appreciate the interior space of the vehicle - nothing has been lost and you get what you expect - a large comfortable sedan capable of transporting five in comfort.

Having gotten to grips with the Ford's 'big car feel' and begun to appreciate the cars equipment levels, I head out on the highway. Unexpectedly, I find myself travelling from Wellington to Wanganui for the day. What better car to do the job than the Falcon? After all, big Falcon's are the traditional domain of the sales rep, company executive and the taxi driver. If it doesn't have power to burn where it goes so often - the open road - it is unlikely to set hearts afire.

The first big performance test comes early in the trip. Maintaining reasonable speed up Ngauranga Gorge can be a big ask for some cars - but not the LPG Ford. While putting your foot down doesn't push you back into the seat you do get real and consistent acceleration. The car's ability to perform is confirmed with open-road overtaking. Power to get where you need to go is never in doubt.

Actually, it's not that surprising. Ford claims the power output of the LPG Falcon is 143kw with 362Nm of torque versus the petrol car's 157kw 357Nm torque. In fact, the higher octane of the LPG results in slightly higher torque - a distinct advantage if your car needs include towing.

As it happens, Wanganui was a disappointment. Fortunately, the drive wasn't. The big Falcon handles and rides very well. At times, the suspension can feel over soft, particularly when cornering hard, but still results in a good overall package. Entering a corner over enthusiastically tends to bring about reasonable, if easily managed under steer. Only hard acceleration while exiting a corner will bring about over steer and cause the tires to squeal in protest. Strangely, traction control is not compatible with LPG power. Ford tells me that different ignition systems means the two are not compatible. Though it doesn’t appear to be any great loss, in the dry at least.

Some time that evening, I found myself in search of a petrol station. I didn't have to search for long as the second station I came across - a Shell - was equipped with LPG. Far from being housed at a pump hidden in the darkest corner of the forecourt, the LPG was part of the standard pump line-up. With no attendant in sight I went it alone. The only significant difference is the need to screw a metal cylinder attached to the nozzle - not unlike a garden hose arrangement - to the fuel pipe. This seals the connection so that no gas can escape. From there, simply click on the handle and wait for it to fill. It takes longer than with petrol, but is certainly no harder to master. Ford says that over 600 petrol stations nation wide (about 30 percent) are LPG equipped and that it is possible to travel around New Zealand and still find an gas station before running out.

So, is it easy on the wallet? The simple answer is yes. At 66c a litre, LPG costs a lot less than petrol but you do use more. Ford says that where the petrol model will use 11.5 litres/100km's around town, the LPG model uses 15 litres. Even so, Ford claim that owners will recover the original $1500 investment after 30,000 km motoring and will save about $20 every additional fill up. You don't have to be a genius to realise that substantial savings can be made with this car - particularly when doing high mileage.

Just as importantly, the range of the car is actually slightly greater than that of a petrol Falcon. But achieving that range means a bigger tank and that in turn means finding additional space from somewhere. The casualty is the boot. While no smaller, it has to accommodate a full size spare tucked into the corner rather than neatly recessed into the floor. It takes up less room than an LPG cylinder would and still allows for a split fold rear seat, but does reduce useful boot space by a considerable margin. The only alternative is a space saver spare....or not much alternative at all.

But there is another good reason to consider this fuel alternative. Ford says Australian studies have shown that using LPG produces 80 percent less air toxins than petrol. LPG also produces 30 percent less smog-forming emissions from the exhaust and creates no evaporative emissions from the petrol tank.

With global climate change a big issue, Ford clearly sees the need to actively market alternative fuels. With studies indicating that LPG achieves a 20 percent reduction in global warming potential compared to petrol, a car that runs solely on LPG is definitely a step in the right direction. Will people take notice though?

There is no doubt that this car runs equally as well as its petrol counterpart. Most drivers wouldn't even notice the difference and I doubt that Bob the taxi driver would have been any the wiser. Ford has even convincingly licked the cold start affliction. But some questions remain. Being able to use only one in three gas stations is simply an inconvenience, but will this car - sophisticated technology and all - withstand the tests of time?

Only a few years and many motoring miles will answer that question. Ford give the car a three year/100,000 km new vehicle warranty, but that may not be enough to allay all buyers fears. In the case of taxi drivers, the same technology that makes this car so good has also vastly improved the performance of their dual fuel cars. That gives them the best of both worlds at simply the touch of a button. A demonstration on a dual-fuel equipped Fairlane proved the point. It would seem that times have changed. The engine was well tuned regardless of which fuel it was running on.

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether Ford win over the New Zealand public or not. The Australian built Falcon has proved that there are viable alternatives to petrol and cars that can meet consumer needs are being built. Either way you look at it, petrol is on the way out and 'alternatives' are on the way in. The fact that Ford has grasped this and produced such a good product in response can only be good news for all car consumers. The only question that remains is whether or not the Bobs of this world will catch on....

Specifications - Ford Falcon Futura LPG

Engine - Six cylinder, 3984cc, Intech OHC dedicated LPG motor producing 143kw at 4500 rpm

Performance - figures not available at time of printing

Transmission - four speed electronically controlled automatic

Suspension - fully independent double wishbone suspension front with Watts multilink at rear

Kerb weight - 1545kg

Price - $46,100

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