Dan Akerson bets on the 2015 Impala Bi-Fuel, but will it sell?

Article by Anita Panait, on October 24, 2013

General Motors will be selling a version of the Chevrolet Impala sedan that could switch between gasoline and natural gas, chief executive Dan Akerson has announced. The move is part of GM's plan to take advantage of a drilling boom in the United States that has made natural gas a more viable fuel for cars. The dual-fuel Impala will have one engine and two fuel tanks: one for gasoline and the other for compressed natural gas.

Drivers could almost instantly switch between the two fuels, depending on what they perceive as cheap and available. Akerson remarked that there will be nothing like the duel-fuel Impala on the road. A number of carmakers sell CNG-fueled pickups.  With the launch of the CNG-powered Impala sedan, GM is giving us a preview of what it is seeing as the future of natural gas in the passenger-car market. According to Akerson, CNG Impala will have a combined range of up to 500 miles. It boasts of a gasoline tank that could go up to 350 miles and a CNG tank that could go for 150 miles.

The CNG Impala sedan could be available next summer as a 2015 model. According to GM, CNG Impala will be sold to both fleet and retail buyers. The CNG Impala is expected to appeal to most corporate and government fleet customers -- which prefer fuel efficient vehicles and generally have easier access to natural-gas fueling stations, according to Alan Baum, an industry consultant.

He, however, said that while some corporate fleet business is expected given the roominess of the Impala, GM's focus has been for less fleet business for the sedan, not more. He added that the decision to fit the CNG technology on the Impala rather than another vehicle was "curious," as GM is repositioning the nameplate as a showroom head turner with the spring launch of the 2014 model, which is more expensive  and more stylish than its predecessor.

Chevrolet will commence sales of the bi-fuel Impala -- to both fleet and retail customers -- in the fourth quarter in either the LS trim (base) or a higher-equipped LT trim.

Powering the bi-fuel Impala is a 3.6L hardened engine with hardened valves and valve seats, allowing it to be more durable and to better resist wear and tear with the CNG fuel system. Located inside the trunk, the CNG tank has a capacity equivalent to around 7.8 gallons of gasoline, which is enough to allow the bi-fuel Impala to travel up to 150 city miles before needing to be refueled with compressed natural gas. Although fuel economy estimates from EPA are yet to be finalized, GM expected the bi-fuel Impala to have a range of 500 city miles, with gasoline and compressed natural gas combined.

Aside from being cheaper than gasoline -- resulting to an average fuel savings of around $1.25 per gasoline-gallon-equivalent -- natural gas is considered as one of the cleanest-burning fuels available. This means that the bi-fuel Impala running on this fuel emits fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline-powered vehicles.

Ed Peper, U.S. vice president for GM Fleet & Commercial, remarked that the Impala has been increasing its market share and has been critically acclaimed for its design, functionality and low cost of ownership. Now that it could be fueled by CNG and gasoline, customers could be able to cut fuel expenses and greenhouse gas emissions alike.

Initially, the bi-fuel Impala runs on CNG and once its fuel tank is depleted, the system would automatically run on gasoline. In addition, drivers could choose which fuel to operate on during a drive, just by pressing a LED-indicated button on the dashboard. Interestingly, the performance of the Impala won’t be interrupted by a change in fuel source.

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