Traditionally a low-volume fleet-vehicle option, bi-fuel light-duty pickup trucks could be ready to go mainstream. For the moment, Ford is the only truckmaker that offers the option in a half-ton configuration (Chevrolet, GMC and Ram only offer the feature on their heavy-duty pickups), but that could change as more consumers learn about the overall cost savings and extended-range benefits of bi-fuel pickups.
Ford uses several qualified vehicle modifiers to install bi-fuel compressed natural gas systems in its light-duty and heavy-duty pickup trucks; in most cases the installation takes place at the end of the production line at the assembly plant.
We spent a few weeks test-driving a 2014 F-150 SuperCab 4x4 XLT with the 3.7-liter V-6. Altech-Eco installed the 15.7-gallon high-strength natural gas tank in the bed of the truck along with a protective diamond-plate cover (that looks like a standard pickup truck bed-box). The entire system, which has a fairly long list of add-ons and modifications to make the dual-fuel system work, adds about $7,800 to the cost of the specific F-150 ordered.
With a truck-only total just a hair over $40,000, our pickup offered a few options, including the XLT Series Convenience Package ($1,310), the CNG engine prep package ($315), the XLT Chrome Package ($1,595), leather center console ($995) and spray-in bedliner ($475). The grand total for our XLT CNG was $48,294, including destination and package discounts totaling $1,250.
One of our favorite features on this pickup was the 36-gallon fuel tank, so our entry-level all-aluminum V-6 (rated at 302 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, and 278 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm) registered an impressive 700-miles-plus range on the computer's calculated "distance to empty" readout. Unfortunately, that number never includes the added distance the CNG tank will provide — so the actual miles per fuel fill-up is probably closer to 1100 miles. Not bad for a full-size pickup truck.
If you're worried about this heavier truck feeling sluggish (our unit weighed just more than 5,800 pounds, offering a calculated payload of 1,100 pounds), we can say the there is a definite difference in how responsive the throttle is between the two fuel sources, with gas being the much sportier choice. When running on CNG it clearly doesn't feel as powerful; however, it didn't make much difference to us because we found ourselves flipping the switch to CNG only when making relatively long highway trips. That means we pretty much had the engine and powertrain running at a steady state, usually with cruise control on, when we used CNG. In that situation, the CNG fuel was a great asset as we got to observe our gas gauge stay motionless for as long as we were cruising.
The CNG System
The Altech-Eco system is completely invisible to the driver with the exception of a small switch to the left of the steering wheel that allows the driver to choose which fuel to use, the CNG fuel gauge (located where a 12-volt plug normally is) and the small loss of cubic volume in the bed. The emissions difference between the two fuels is significant, with 507 grams of carbon dioxide emitted when running gasoline fuel (EPA rated with a 4 out 10 when compared to its segment), and 317 grams of CO2 when running on CNG (EPA rated an 8 out of 10 compared to its segment). For comparison purposes, the 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 4.3-liter V-6 emits 449 grams per mile, the 2014 Toyota Tacoma 4.0-liter V-6 emits 468 and the 2014 Honda Ridgeline 3.5-liter V-6 emits 506.
Our fuel fill-up costs varied because of fluctuating station prices, but in the Los Angeles area we averaged about $3.80 a gallon for 87-octane gas and around $2.90 a gallon for CNG (pricing can vary quite a bit though — the least expensive place we found in Southern California was $1.90 a gallon, but it was 40 miles away from our home base). Our grand total for a full fill-up (both tanks empty) was $180 ($135 for gas and $45 for CNG). So if you want to run more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups, this could be the way to go. For most people this could mean stopping at the gas station less than once a month.
When driving around town, there is very little difference between piloting a bi-fuel vehicle and piloting a gas pickup. The only thing we noticed is the bi-fuel pickup felt slightly heavier. Our guess is the Altech-Eco system weighs as much as 300 pounds with the tank full. Although the 3.7-liter V-6 is not horribly strong, it moves the truck (especially when the pickup is empty) with some enthusiasm. However, with CNG fuel running through the same engine, the responsiveness seems to drop as much as 20 percent, almost feeling like you're driving at high altitudes.
Overall, this bi-fuel F-150 offers some impressive advantages over a "normal" F-150. We never missed the lost bed space, we loved having the tremendous fuel range and eventually got used to our local 3,600-per-square-inch CNG filling station. We should note the CNG fill-up procedure does take some getting used to and none of the CNG stations are covered for some reason (maybe that's a California thing). The nozzles are a little bulky and the pump makes disconcerting noises. Some stations do provide a small-screen video tutorial at the CNG pump. Our final piece of advice is to always opt for the backup camera, and if there's a CNG option on the 2015 F-150 (we've been told by Ford that for the 2015 model year, there will be no CNG conversions. We're guessing that will start back up in 2016), a side-view camera over the nozzle opening might not be bad either to help drivers line up the filling-station nozzles, which can be tricky.
Normal fuel-economy runs with a combination of highway and around-town mileage yielded 21.1 mpg on the trip computer (even when running on CNG the computer calculates as if it were running on gasoline) with a range around 750 miles. We're told the system does not include any extra mileage calculations the CNG provides because the sensors and software needed would be cost and production prohibitive at this stage. We hope Ford corrects that with the 2015 models.
We were most impressed with the fact that, as we used the CNG fuel for long-distance highway cruising, we saw "better than gas" fuel economy from the alternative fuel and had us streatching our full-to-empty distances well past the 1,000-mile mark. Unforturnately, the fuel gauge for the system never seems to like to read beyond 3/4-full so for much of the time once we flipped the switch to CNG, neither the gas or CNG gauges moved for hundreds of mile. It was almost like we were driving without any way to know we were using any fuel at all.
The Altech-Eco CNG system comes with an eight-year, 80,000-mile warranty on major emission components and a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty on general emissions components. Depending on your driving habits and CNG filling station availability (they can be somewhat difficult to find), the benefits to a system like this seem to worth every penny.
To see the Ford F-150 bi-fuel XLT price sheet, click here.
To see the installed Altech-Eco natural gas price sheet, click here.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams