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Propane-fuelled SUV cuts gas costs

For a recent trip up to cottage country, I had the choice of driving my 2001 VW GTI 1.8T or a 2002 4x4 Chevrolet Suburban. In the hopes of saving money, I took the Suburban.

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GRAVENHURST–For a recent trip up to cottage country, I had the choice of driving my 2001 VW GTI 1.8T or a 2002 4×4 Chevrolet Suburban. In the hopes of saving money, I took the Suburban.

Huh? An 8.1 L V8 Texas Cadillac over a four-cylinder compact hatch?

The deciding factor here was cost of fuel. My GTI likes premium gas, which at the time was $1.37 per litre. This Suburban, on the other hand, sported a propane conversion, and liquid propane was trading at a very nostalgic 61.9 cents per litre.

If you’re like me, propane-powered vehicles are somewhat of a mysterious proposition. Sure, I’ve seen the cabbies filling up at the propane tank, but cabbies are pretty mysterious creatures too.

Robert Jekosz, president and CEO of Advanced Fuel Solutions (www.allautopropane.com) in Mississauga lent me this Suburban and brought me up to speed on the latest propane conversion technology.

Advanced Fuel Solutions, one of a handful of propane automotive companies in the GTA, has converted about 700 vehicles in four years of operation. They test both European and North American components for their in-house P.H.D. (Propane Hybrid Development) Group Sequential Fuel Injection System. Conversion prices range from $2,650 for compact cars to around $3,000 for trucks and SUVs – this is after factoring in a $750 federal government rebate.

In light of the recent propane accident in Toronto, my wife was quick to bring up the question of safety. Her concerns were somewhat assuaged by the fact that there are more than 10 million propane-powered vehicles operating worldwide, and the insurance industry, which will look for any excuse to raise rates, does not bat an eye when you switch to propane.

In Jekosz’s homeland of Poland, about half the gasoline (not diesel) cars are fitted with propane systems.

My main concern was running out of BBQ-juice and getting stranded up north. Granted, the square footage of the Suburban’s interior rivalled that of my house, so at least I’d have a place to live. No worries. Turns out these are bi-fuel systems – the vehicle retains its gas tank and can switch from gas to propane on the fly with the press of a dash-mounted button.

So what is propane? Interestingly, propane is not produced for its own sake, but is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. It is stored and transported in a compressed liquid form, only reverting to gas when used, expanding 270 times from its liquid state. Ninety per cent of Canadian propane comes from domestic natural gas, which is the cleaner and greener of the two sources. That said, it is still a fossil fuel.

The most remarkable thing about my few days in this propane-powered behemoth was that fact that it was largely unremarkable. The 8.1 L V8 pulled like a freight train in both gas and propane mode, and according to Jekosz, it actually generates slightly more power and torque on propane due to the fuel’s 104 octane rating.

On the minus side, propane contains less BTU energy per volume than gasoline, so fuel economy suffers by about 10 per cent.

The other issue with propane conversion is tank placement. While the 100-litre tanks for most SUVs, pickups and vans can be placed under the vehicle, passenger cars will lose trunk space to the 81-litre cylindrical units. Available in Europe, but not legal here, is a new generation of compact tank and valve system that fits in the spare tire well.

My eco-sensibilities were a little hammered driving this fuel-sucker solo through the Muskokas, but it was comforting to know the fuel I was using was domestically produced and very clean burning.

Propane vehicles meet EURO IV and SULEV emission standards, and when compared to gas cars, release significantly lower levels of carcinogens and smog producing chemicals. Additionally, propane is non-toxic.

Propane has also been proven beneficial to the internals of the engine due to its cleaner properties,

Okay. If propane is so great, why aren’t we all, like cabbies and contractors, jumping on this green and economical bandwagon?

For most people, the answer to this question will be, “Thanks, but no tanks.” Until the sleek Euro tanks are available here (Jekosz isn’t holding his breath), we’re stuck with the bulky Canadian-made units that are also several times more expensive.

Nonetheless, they recently installed a bi-fuel sequential injection conversion kit in a Toyota Prius. Not only did it reduce the hybrid’s emissions even more, it made it cheap to operate. A round trip to Montreal cost Jekosz $33.

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