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Toyota Decides to Give Natural-Gas Cars Another Chance


By Chris Woodyard
USA Today
September 24, 2008


Toyota will announce today that it is taking a new look
at an alternative fuel that it had left behind: compressed natural gas.
And Honda, the only maker now of a CNG-powered car, plans to make twice as
many of those environmentally friendly Civics for the U.S. in 2009 as it
did last year.

Toyota says it will display a concept version of a CNG-electric hybrid
Camry at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Though it has made no
commitment to production, the unveiling is tied to a burst of renewed interest.

"With this concept, we are confirming our interest in pursuing CNG," says
Irv Miller, a vice president for Toyota Motor Sales, the U.S. sales arm.

He lauded CNG as cheaper than gasoline, low in emissions and more
plentiful than oil. Data presented at a Toyota-sponsored conference here
made the case for oil production declining faster than natural gas
supplies, pointing to the need to look anew at the fuel.

Toyota is "testing the waters," says John O'Dell, senior editor for
Edmunds Green Car Advisor. "They want to be ready" if it looks like CNG
will make a comeback.

The announcement comes amid splashy, big-budget ad campaigns that have
attempted to move natural gas off the energy back burner. Texas
billionaire T. Boone Pickens has touted natural gas and wind power as the
centerpieces of his "Pickens Plan" for energy independence. And Chesapeake
Energy, one of the nation's largest natural-gas producers, has ads
promoting CNG.

Toyota's new look at natural gas "demonstrates there is a great deal of
attention at progressive auto manufacturers who are looking at the
opportunity to use a clean, abundant, affordable, American fuel," says
Chesapeake Senior Vice President Tom Price.

Several automakers, including Toyota, offered CNG-powered vehicles nearly
a decade ago but quit when interest flagged. CNG-powered vehicles usually
have less range than gas-powered vehicles and less trunk space because of
the large fuel tanks.

Also, there currently are only about 1,000 CNG fueling stations
nationwide, half available to consumers.

Yet high gasoline prices have spurred enough interest that Honda says its
CNG-powered Civic GX has a wait of several months. It plans to make 2,000
next year. The Civic GX costs $25,090, nearly $7,000 more than the
gasoline equivalent.

The GX is mostly sold to fleet customers, except in California and New
York, where it is sold to consumers. Demand jumped when gasoline prices
rose, says spokesman Chris Martin.

He says Honda is supportive of Toyota's renewed interest. "We think it
helps acceptance" of natural gas to have more models available from all
makers.

 

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