While every other major automaker in the world is pouring billions of dollars into research for electric vehicles, Fiat doesn't seem to be all that interested in electric cars. Instead, it's putting its efforts into producing cars that can run on compressed natural gas. Even more importantly, it's offering what it calls bi-fuel cars, which can run on both gasoline and CNG.
In fact, the Italian automaker is more bullish on bi-fuel cars than it is on diesels. It prides itself on having the lowest average CO2 emissions of any major automaker in Europe. Low emission ratings are a big deal to European car buyers. And Fiat believes it can continue to maintain its lead with engines that can run on both gasoline and CNG.

Most of Fiat's sales come from the low-end of the market, tiny A- and B-class cars that don't cost a lot of money. The people who buy these cars typically can't even afford to pay the premium to get a diesel engine. And forget about hybrids or electric cars, they're simply further out of their price range.

Now Fiat thinks it has another idea that could push it far ahead of everyone else when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. It wants to combine hydrogen gas with compressed natural gas and offer the cleanest burning engines in the industry.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.

Fiat argues that building a full hydrogen infrastructure is going to take decades to put in place. Yet, it sees the need for the world to start moving towards a hydrogen economy. So it believes a car that can run on a mixture of 30% hydrogen and 70% CNG offers the perfect bridge-technology to get us there. While CNG burns very clean, mixing it with hydrogen yields another 12% reduction in CO2. Better still, it's far safer than using pure hydrogen, Fiat claims. The company currently has a test fleet of 20 Pandas that are running on the hydrogen-CNG mixture.

Fiat says it's the world leader in CNG cars. Last year it sold 125,000 vehicles and offers a bi-fuel option in a variety of passenger cars and commercial vehicles including the Panda, Punto, Doblo, Multipla, and Ducato. Amazingly it only charges €1500, or about $2,000, for the bi-fuel option. That compares to the extra $5,000 that Honda charges for the natural gas-fueled Civic GX in the American market, and that does not include bi-fuel capability.

Fiat uses two CNG tanks in its cars for better packaging. By placing one tank under the floor of the car, it opens more room in the trunk or cargo area compared to having one big tank back there. And with its gasoline tank, a driver never has to worry about being stranded far from a station that sells CNG.

Actually, CNG stations are starting to become fairly commonplace across much of Western Europe. And the price of CNG is mighty attractive. It's roughly half the cost of gasoline or diesel.

Most people in Europe live in apartment houses, so owning an electric car or plug-in could prove problematic. Where to plug in? That's another reason why Fiat is betting so heavily on CNG.

And that makes me wonder if Chrysler is going to jump on this bandwagon. While Chrysler is supposed to be the lead developer for EVs for the Fiat Group, you sure don't hear much of anything about what it's doing in this area. Since hybrids only account for a little over 2% of the American market even after a decade since they debuted, it seems unlikely EVs will surpass those sales anytime soon. Maybe a bi-fuel option like Fiat has developed would prove to be far more popular, and give Chrysler a selling proposition that no one else could match in the short run.


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