Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) has enjoyed greater success and is more widely available than compressed natural gas (CNG), but both kinds of fuel are supported by tax breaks which can cut hundreds of pounds off an employee’s annual fuel bill. Although fuel consumption with these types of fuels is higher than with petrol, duty is frozen at 37 pence for a litre of LPG – compare that to average prices of 77 pence per litre for diesel and 75 pence per litre for unleaded, and the potential is clear.
And, for those living or working in London, all alternatively-fuelled cars are also exempt from the proposed £5-a-day London congestion charge due for launch February 2003.
However, it’s well worth mentioning that the duty is only guaranteed to be frozen until 2004. At present the government won’t give any assurances that the freeze will continue beyond this, although it would be politically dangerous to hike the duty too quickly afterwards. But the government has also said that it’s looking at exhaust-treated diesel engines as a possible low emission alternative to gas – though no decision has yet been reached, and any change would not have any impact for several years.
It should also be noted that the Channel Tunnel refuses to carry either LPG or CNG-powered cars or vans. Although these vehicles aren’t regarded as any more dangerous than a conventional alternative, and all reputable conversions have safety valves, the operator of the tunnel has concerns over the cars’ pressurised tanks.
Besides the gasses, there are also a couple of petrol-electric hybrids from Honda and Toyota which can cut fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to good fuel economy.
If you are considering the LPG option, don’t think that you have to visit a dodgy garage to have your fleet converted. Manufacturers are offering a growing range of factory-built gas-powered cars and vans, which enjoy the same warranty as petrol and diesel models.
For example, Vauxhall was one of the first manufacturers’ to offer LPG-powered cars and vans straight off the production line. At present it’s aggressively expanding its dual-fuel range and has a dedicated dual-fuel sales team for fleet customers. These cars are based on proven petrol engines, with an LPG fuel system laid alongside. This means that you can switch back to petrol if you run out of LPG and can’t find a gas pump.
But with 1,200 LPG sites now open in the UK making up about a tenth of all stations, filling up shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And around five new sites add gas every week. Vauxhall offers dual fuel Astras in 1.6 or 1.8-litre configurations, with on-the-road prices starting from £10,895 and rising to £13,905 for the sporty SRi version, or £15,670 for the Bertone-styled Astra Coupe. An LPG Corsa supermini and a LPG Corsavan, will be on sale from early 2003. Meanwhile, gas versions of the Combovan and Astravan are already on offer, although the gas tanks do impinge on the load space.
Although dual-fuel Vauxhalls carry a £1,660 pre-VAT premium government TransportAction Powershift grants cover 60 per cent of conversion cost, reducing the additional pre-VAT outlay by £995. These grants are actually offered on a sliding scale according to how much cleaner the converted car is than the petrol alternative – but virtually all manufacturers’ conversions qualify for the maximum 60 per cent grant. Visit www.transportaction.org.uk for more information.
The savings available from changing to LPG are evinced by the example of Vauxhall’s Zafira seven-seater MPV, which, taking grants into consideration, costs just under £15,550 on-the-road, including VAT. The LPG MPV typically costs £728 to fuel over a 12,000-mile year, compared to £1,240 for the petrol alternative – so savings starting to stack up in year two. However, with all LPG or CNG vehicles, acceleration and top speeds are a little lower than with petrol, but this is only by two-to-three per cent.
Other manufacturers that offer LPG vehicles include Daihatsu, which currently has LPG on offer throughout its Hi-Jet range. It includes a van, a pick-up and six-seater MPV. Ford’s popular Transit van is also available with LPG, and, for an extra £2,195 on the basic list price, you can now buy a selection of MG and Rover LPG models, too. Volvo offers factory-built LPG and CNG dual-fuel cars in most of its range, from its S40 family car to the V70 executive estate. Premiums for these are £1,485 for LPG and £1,815 for CNG. Again, the maximum grant available from Powershift is available.
Office products supplier Guilbert has already switched to dual-fuel.
It estimates that it saves nearly £600 a year on each of the Volvo S40s it has bought. S60s have also joined the fleet and more converted Volvos will be added as drivers’ cars come up for replacement.
In most dual-fuel vehicles, the gas tanks are fitted in the boot, usually as a doughnut-shaped drum that fits into the spare-wheel well. A puncture repair kit is provided in place of the spare tyre.
The TransportAction website has details on after-market conversions that are available on a variety of vehicles. However, choose with care if you follow this route, because many aftermarket conversions don’t qualify for the full grant on the Powershift scheme’s sliding scale.
Birmingham Trading Standards recently analysed 20 aftermarket conversions and found that 19 were un-roadworthy, so choose your mechanic carefully.
The LPG Association (www.lpg.co.uk) can put you in touch with a registered converter. For large fleets it may be better to source LPG fleets direct from the manufacturer.
There are currently 80,000 gas-powered vehicles on the road but this number is growing every day. Residual values on these cars are difficult to predict – but they shouldn’t be any worse than the equivalent petrol models. Vauxhall even believes that strong demand could strengthen residual values in two-to-three years.
Another green choice is a hybrid car, such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. Both combine a battery-powered electric motor with small efficient petrol-engines, but in slightly different ways. Both are also eligible for grants reducing their relatively high purchase prices by around £1,000.
The Prius switches off the petrol engine at speeds below 3mph, drawing on the battery in traffic jams. The electric motor is also used above these speeds to assist the conventional engine when hard acceleration is required.
In economy mode, Honda’s Insight can also be set to switch off the engine when stationary, but as soon as you pull away it switches back on. The small electric motor also assists the efficient 1.3-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, adding enough power to make it behave like a 1.6-litre.
Even in non-economy-mode, the Insight has extraordinary fuel efficiency thanks to its two-seater shape, rear wheel covers and very low weight. Economy figures of more than 60mpg are easily attainable, while numbers above 70mpg are not unheard of if you drive carefully.
The Prius has the advantage of four seats and a decent-sized boot, but the fuel consumption figures are less amazing. In fact, some conventional engines can better its performance in this regard, but they fall short on carbon-dioxide emissions. Honda will offer a direct rival from next year in the hybrid Civic saloon.
Beyond electric dual-fuel, the momentum behind hydrogen as the fuel of the future is growing. BMW has said that it will offer a commercial hydrogen-powered model in the lifespan of the current 7-series. That gives the manufacturer nine years to bring it to market.
Most manufacturers are looking at fuel cell technology, which uses hydrogen to produce electricity to drive a motor, with the only by-product being water. Plenty of working prototypes are around, and Honda and Toyota have even started limited sales in the US and Japan.
However, most industry figures don’t think hydrogen-powered cars will be commercially available until at least 2025. And some are even more sceptical – they don’t think an infrastructure will be in place until long after that date. After all, as BP points out, it has taken more than a 100 years to build the network it has now.
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