Natural gas as … an afterthought

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So of all the Ram Truck pickups lined up by the OEM at a recent ride and drive event held outside of Thousand Oaks, CA, last week, I decided first and foremost to give a bi-fueled gasoline/natural gas Ram 2500 silver crew cab a try.

My thinking went like this: I’ll take it out on this hour-long loop the Ram team concocted for the assembled media throng and pay special attention to how the vehicle performs when powered solely on natural gas (compressed natural gas or CNG to be precise), then switch over to “gasoline mode” in order to compare the two on ride, performance, fuel economy, engine noise and other such metrics.

Well, that merry little plan lasted about all of 15 seconds after I turned left onto when looked like an innocuous suburban two lane road (Westlake Boulevard to be exact) and suddenly found myself navigating what appeared to be endless hair raising hair-pin turns of a narrow roadway scratched it seemed in to the sides of the Santa Monica mountains – with few, if any, guardrails between my pickup and steep canyon gorges.

[For more pictures of this particular ride and drive, click here.]

To make matters worse, bicyclists seemed to be EVERYWHERE, pedaling up and down twisty mountain roads that offered ZERO extra lane space for them. It didn’t help that some sort of hell-raising BMW and Mini Cooper club seemed to pick the same hour of my ride and drive time to go barreling along at high speed right up to my rear bumper – with few if any spaces available for me to safely pull off to let them pass.

Oh, and I got lost, too; something made easier to do as a heavy fog rolled in off the Pacific to obscure much of the Santa Monica Mountain national recreation area (where I found myself driving) as well as long stretches of the Pacific Coast highway (where I went the wrong direction for a time).

The highway driving on Rt. 1 (the aforementioned Pacific Coast highway) proved just as hectic as surfboard toting sedans roared hither and thither at high speed on an ostensibly four lane road (two lanes heading north and two pointing south) that would suddenly lose a lane, wither by design or by the ever-ubiquitous orange cones heralding roadway construction.

A brief (and VERY welcome!) segment of flat farming land proved all too short lived as the rode and drive map suddenly had me wheel hard right back into the mountains (not THIS again!) for more hair-pin-turn navigating, accompanied by yet more excessive sweating on my part.

Then … relief came into view. Somehow I managed to find our ride and drive staging area (Thornton Farms, to be exact) and pulled in to travel down the long dirt road to the parking area. “Well, we were wondering if you were ever coming back!” the drive master told me, noting the time I’d left versus when I’d returned.

Upon exiting the silver Ram, I of course realized I never conducted a single one of those gasoline-natural gas comparison tests I’d thought myself so clever for thinking up.

Then I paused for a little more reflection.

One of the things almost any operator ranks at the top of their list when it comes to a vehicle is drivability: specifically, do I have to do anything funky or different from what I normally do in order to operate it correctly and safely?

For me, the natural gas powering this particular truck almost never entered my mind as I drove for two hours through a variety of difficult conditions – indeed I ended up doing not a single thing differently from a driver’s perspective as I totally became absorbed in executing my trip in as safe a manner as possible.

On top of it, knowing that I had a full tank of gasoline aboard allowed me to totally discount any worries about running out of fuel should the natural gas tank get emptied (I came close, but wrapped this particular test drive segment up still running on the little blue flame).

Maybe that’s the lesson here, I told myself. Maybe because if drive conditions command my entire attention, there will be no room to worry about the vagaries of a new fangled fuel. And in this case, natural gas did its job here – I maneuvered the vehicle safely from start to finish, with no lack of power or poorer handling to contend with.

That’s an important facet of natural gas vehicle technology that shouldn’t get overlooked, methinks. 

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