Fiat ads in the US try to play up the exotic, sexy side of Italian culture. On the home front in Italy, however, passenger-vehicle sales are marked by something less edgy and quite a bit more practical: the growth of compressed-natural-gas (CNG) powered car sales.

In fact, Italy is leading a group of European countries where CNG sales are on the upswing and may be benefiting automakers like VW, Fiat and Mercedes-Benz, according to Automotive News. VW started sales of its Golf TGI natural-gas vehicle this year – the company's fourth in Europe – while Mercedes-Benz added a natural-gas B-class model. Fiat accounts for about 50 percent of CNG vehicles sold on the continent.

In all, Europe's CNG sales through September totaled about 67,000, up seven percent from a year earlier, Automotive News Europe says, citing research firm JATO Dynamics. And the number of CNG vehicles on Europe's roads could jump tenfold within the next decade. The draw is a combination of lower refueling prices and a CNG drivetrain that typically emits less CO2 than diesel vehicles.

As for Italy, about five percent of new-vehicle sales are CNG. To put that into perspective, hybrids, battery-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and diesels combined to account for about 4.2 percent of US vehicle sales last year.

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