If you are an environmentally conscious driver, there are different types of fuel sources for your consideration. Electric vehicles, compressed natural gasoline, fuel cell and diesel are some options. Even flex fuel vehicles with the ability to take E85 fuel present a compelling alternative to gasoline. We’ll take a look at five vehicle samples representing each category, what they have to offer, and competitors to consider, if any.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Eco Diesel
The most common alternative fuel available is diesel. Long used in 18-wheelers, transit buses and heavy-duty pickup trucks, diesel availability among passenger vehicles has been limited in North America, due in part to perceptions as well as emissions restrictions.
Such perceptions may have been formed by earlier generation diesels such as those from General Motors, which proved unreliable. Also, earlier diesel models were slow. In recent years manufacturers such as Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have developed new diesels that are clean, powerful and efficient.
One such engine has found its way under the hood of various Fiat Chrysler products. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Eco Diesel is powered by a turbodiesel 3.0-liter V6 engine making 240 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. This powertrain is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, and enables the Grand Cherokee to make 22/30 mpg city/highway. Comparable models include the Volkswagen Touareg TDI R-Line.
Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel (CNG)
Natural gas is comprised mostly of methane and is one of the cleanest burning alternative fuels. Natural gas in its compressed state (CNG) is less expensive than gasoline, cuts smog causing pollutants by 20 percent or more and drops greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent. Moreover, natural gas is domestically produced.
Only a handful of manufacturers has given natural gas vehicles a try. One problem is the limited availability of natural gas pumps — you need to use a station locator such as the one provided by the Department of Energy to find one in your area. Also, such models suffer a slight loss in fuel economy over comparable gasoline models. However, that drop is negligible for the Chevrolet Impala, as the CNG version gets 16/24 mpg city/highway compared with 17/25 mpg city/highway for the gasoline model.
Both Honda and Toyota have provided CNG models, but neither do so anymore. For example, the Honda Civic CNG was discontinued in 2015. That being said, the Chevrolet Impala bi-fuel is a full-size, five passenger sedan that comes with a 3.6-liter V6 engine. It’s designed to handle the fuel and has a CNG mount in the trunk holding the equivalent of 7.8 gallons. Because this model is bi-fuel, owners can switch between regular gasoline and natural gas, and enjoy 500 miles of driving range. Other CNG models include pickup trucks retrofitted for CNG purposes, including the Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-150.
Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell
Imagine driving a vehicle and its only emission is harmless water vapor. Well, those vehicles are on the market, although availability is currently limited to select markets in California and elsewhere. That’s set to change as America’s hydrogen infrastructure continues to expand.
The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is based on Hyundai’s five passenger compact SUV. The way that the Tucson FCEV works is that hydrogen fuel is stored in its tank, and then sent to the fuel cell stack where it is mixed with air to generate electricity and water. The electricity is supplied to the motor and battery and the water is discharged harmlessly into the atmosphere as vapor.
Hyundai makes the Tucson FCEV available for lease only. This model has a 265-mile range and is currently available in Southern California only. That market has been supplied by the Honda FCX Clarity in the past and will soon welcome a new competitor, the Toyota Mirai.
BMW i3 BEV
Perhaps the ultimate alternative fuel vehicles are electric cars. Instead of using fuel, electric vehicles tap into the power grid to run. Yes, somewhere down the line coal, fossil fuels or nuclear energy is used to make the electricity, but at its 120-volt power source, the energy matter is purely electric.
Multiple electric vehicle models have been released in recent years, including the Nissan Leaf. More recently, BMW got into the mix by introducing the i3 BEV. This rear-wheel drive, four passenger, five-door hatchback has an electric-only range of 80 to 100 miles.
For drivers who need an extended range, the BMW i3 can be had with a two-cylinder gasoline generator, effectively making this model a plug-in hybrid. The generator creates energy to supply the battery, effectively doubling the i3’s driving range. Other models to consider in this segment include the Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Model S, Kia Soul EV and BMW i8.
Ford Transit Connect Wagon Flex Fuel
Flex fuel is an alternative fuel source composed of an ethanol-gasoline blend. Such vehicles can take up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). Because alcohol is corrosive, flex fuel vehicles (FFV) require modifications to the engine, fuel line, fuel tank and computer system to handle the fuel.
The appeal of flex fuel is that it is cleaner burning than straight gasoline. FFVs also have the capacity to run on regular gasoline when E85 is not available or desired. Manufacturers such as Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover and GM all build such vehicles. Besides limited availability in some areas, consumers should know that fuel mileage drops by 15 to 30 percent over straight gasoline. Thus, to make E85 worthwhile, fuel prices should be correspondingly lower than regular grade gasoline.
One family vehicle that comes flex fuel ready is the compact Ford Transit Connect wagon. When outfitted with the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, this seven-passenger model will take either fuel or a blend of both. Ford pairs this engine making 169 horsepower with a six-speed automatic transmission. The Ford Transit Connect is EPA-rated at 20/28 mpg city/highway when taking regular gasoline or 15/20 mpg when using E85 fuel only. Other FFV models to consider include the Chrysler 200, Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic, Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Equinox and Honda Fit.
Your Purchase Considerations
Electric vehicles, some hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles usually qualify for special incentives on the state or federal level, sometimes both. Some models, such as the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell can only be leased. Other models may offer manufacturer incentives. Our inventory of used models includes vehicles from each category, including certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicles.