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1997 Ford Econoline

Enter a test drive (and haul) of the 1997 Ford Econoline.

  • Driver

Four guys, instruments and a killer audio system on loan from

Long and McQuade and no way of getting it to the Wheels cruise

last Sunday. What better opportunity to test the capabilities of

a full-size van.

Enter a test drive (and haul) of the 1997 Ford Econoline.

A note from Chris Banks, the public relations guy for Ford

trucks, was attached to the keys.

The note read in part, “I know this van won’t be the most

glamorous rig at the Cruise” no, Chris, that would be my 1977

AMC Hornet hatchback “but I’ll bet it will be the

environmentally cleanest.”

Environmentally clean? A full-size van? Has Mr. Banks been

spending too much time sniffing a tailpipe?

No, this van probably had the cleanest-running internal

combustion engine at the cruise — because it’s powered by

natural gas.

It’s part of Ford’s multipronged attempt to explore

alternative fuels.

Vehicles powered in whole or in part by methanol, ethanol,

propane and electricity are all in Ford’s plan. Some are in

production now, others are still in development.

But natural gas seems to have the most immediate appeal.

Natural gas vehicles come as bifuel or dedicated. On bifuel

models, the flick of a switch changes the supply from natural

gas to regular unleaded. Such a bifuel system is currently

available on F-Series pickups, Econo and Club Wagon passenger

vans.

The weight and complexity of duplicate fuel storage and

delivery systems plus the fact that the system cannot be

optimized for the performance advantages of natural gas are

compensated for by not having to worry about being stranded by

the inability to find a filling station that handles natural

gas.

(Besides, you can’t just hitch-hike to the nearest filling

station and grab a couple of kilos of natural gas in a red

plastic container.)

My Econoline tester with 5.4L V8 was a dedicated natural gas

vehicle part of a Ford test fleet. The dedicated route allows

the engine to be engineered to take advantage of natural gas’s

higher octane rating a higher compression ratio results in

greater performance and economy.

Full-size? This thing could apply for a seat at the United

Nations. When rain threatened at the Cruise, we thought about

moving the entire event inside this truck. Lead guitar player

Rockin’ Robin figured it had its own weather systems.

That said, I wished during the hot, muggy Saturday that

whoever spec’ed this van had traded the cruise control for air

conditioning.

The beauty of the natural gas Econoline is that in normal

driving, it is absolutely indistinguishable from a

gasoline-powered vehicle. Get in, turn on, drive away.

The only time it gets weird is when the fuel gauge starts to

drift downward.

Unlike propane, natural gas is a self-serve deal. It took me

about ten minutes to figure out the so-simple-a-

child-could-do-it-but-I-didn’t-have-a-child-with-me-at-the-time-

instructions. But it seemed to take forever to actually fill the

tank — it’s sloooow.

I stopped caring about that when I saw the $15.99 tab. That’s

29.13 kilograms of fuel at 54.9 cents per kg. They also

advertise it at 36.1 cents per litre, but since natural gas is

compressed, it’s sold by weight, not volume.

Sixteen dollars to fill an Econoline? I could get used to

that. What would filling a gasoline Econoline take? I’m not

sure, but I can get $70-worth of diesel into my Suburban.

Now, I only got 256 km out of that $16 tankful with a full

load on board. My second fill, running mostly unladen, yielded

160 km on a half-tank. That’s got to be a fraction of what it

would cost with gasoline.

(I must add the standard caveat for any alternative fuel cost

comparison: fuel prices are always at the whim of governments;

taxes make up over half the cost of just about any fuel, and can

rise faster than the Minster of Natural Resources can get up

from a seat in the Legislature.)

Despite the aforementioned cruise control — plus power

windows, mirrors and remote locks — my Econoline tester was

barebones, literally. Much of the cargo bay is lined with steel

skeleton and the inside of the body sheetmetal.

Up front are two cheap-looking but quite comfortable bucket

seats. The spare tire is bolted right behind the driver’s seat.

The front doors get full trims, with side and rear doors getting

rudimentary coverings. Plus a fine sound system. Even on

commercial vehicles, Ford does great radios.

It drives surprisingly well. The steering is light, if a touch

vague. The ride is a little jumpy when unladen (the springs have

to accommodate heavy loads) with the band equipment aboard it

was all right. Tightly-built, rattle-free, and quieter than

you’d expect too, considering there’s no sound deadening in

about 50 per cent of the vehicle.

Parking is an adventure, no doubt. How delivery drivers

manipulate these beasts around town especially since they all

drive at the speed of light is beyond me. The turning circle

is, however, nice and tight.

Concerned about visibility? To the front, the view is

tremendous. You feel like you’re driving an office building from

the fourth floor. This van had full windows, side and rear. With

proper mirror alignment, the rearward view is not a huge

problem. Besides, when you change lanes in this thing, who’s

going to argue?

For the moment, natural gas is the private preserve of

dedicated tree-huggers who need independent transportation but

who want to save the earth as best they can.

Fleet owners who can calculate how far their vehicles travel,

and can schedule refuelling as needed can come to the obvious

conclusion.

Given the cost savings, pollution reduction, user-friendliness

and high degree of Canadian content, in both engineering and

supply of both the hardware and fuel, any government fleet not

running on natural gas has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Freelance

journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving

experiences with an Econoline provided by Ford of Canada. You

can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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