x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Road Test: Natural gas Volkswagen Passat not all hot air

This CNG- and petrol-powered Passat is a more viable alternative to an electric vehicle here in the UAE.

This compressed natural gas-powered Passat can now fill up at three stations in Abu Dhabi and along the emirate's section of the E11.
This compressed natural gas-powered Passat can now fill up at three stations in Abu Dhabi and along the emirate's section of the E11.

Despite the media hubbub of electric cars and hybrids, they haven't really caught on yet, have they? The confident claims from some automakers of having five per cent of cars on the road being electric by 2015 really doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Why is that? There are a few reasons. Hybrid cars today are more expensive than their petrol and diesel-powered brethren and, for the little fuel they save over normal cars, people aren't really seeing the benefit. Hybrids are complicated machines, with batteries, electric motors and special transmissions added on top of the mechanics of a normal vehicle, while the simple combustion engine has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years with regards to efficiency, so why bother? And pure electric cars - again, much more expensive - require long charging times that generate a sense of "range anxiety", requiring a change in philosophy in the sense of freedom that comes with driving a car you can fill up with petrol at a pump in a mere minute or two, just about anywhere in the world. No, the electric car still has a long way to go before gaining acceptance with the general public.

So what's the best way to make an alternative-powered car with greater fuel efficiency and less emissions viable? Make it like any other car on the road today; people don't want to change their driving habits just yet, and, let's face it, changing the world isn't worth changing their world.

Enter the Volkswagen Passat Variant Ecofuel. It's a long name, but it represents another alternative for cleaner driving, in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG). And it also represents a way to help reduce your emissions and carbon footprint without changing your driving habits.

Sorry, though - you can't buy it here in the UAE just yet. But this purpose-built CNG car (not a converted petrol car, but actually built with the system from the factory) is part of a broader plan by Volkswagen Middle East to introduce cleaner alternatives for driving in the UAE.

"The good thing with this concept is that you have a great deal of autonomy, if you don't have a gas station you can still drive on petrol, so you don't have the risk," says Stefan Mecha, the head of VW Middle East. He was at the Dubai Motor Show in November with the car and explained why VW has brought this lone variant out here. "For a long time we've already looked at options to get a more environmentally friendly fleet on the ground. We were quite hesitant on the Touareg hybrid; we gave it a shot, but from our customers, what's the point of having a hybrid here?"

Last year, VW participated in the UAE leg of the Asia Pacific Natural Gas Association Green Highways tour, bringing the Passat Ecofuel here to demonstrate the range and abilities of a CNG-powered car. And recently, the company has loaned three CNG-powered Jettas for testing to Dubai Municipality, which has said it will make 25 per cent of its fleet CNG-powered in the next few years.

And if you want to drive an alternative-powered car, you could do a lot worse than this Passat estate. Apart from the large, yellow Emirates Gas sticker on the rear quarters of this test vehicle, the only other noticeable change from a normal Passat is having two separate fuel gauges in the instrument cluster, one for CNG and one for petrol. The three CNG tanks are hidden underneath the boot floor and the filling nozzle is behind the normal petrol fuel door on the side of the car. For all purposes, this is your normal, everyday car. And yet, even without the alternative fuel capacity, it's more than that.

The 1.4L direct injection engine, with both a supercharger and turbocharger, produces 150hp and will run on CNG until the tank is empty, at which point it will switch seamlessly and automatically to the petrol tank - no range anxiety.

There is virtually no change in driving dynamics between the two fuels. It's got enough power to get you around in a spirited way, though you have to put the seven-speed DSG gearbox into sport mode - normal mode sees it shift sluggishly for better economy. And not only is it a comfortable ride with very decent handling, this car is packed with just about every modern, electronic convenience and safety feature, systems you'd expect to find on the most luxurious of cars, such as a power boot lid, parking sensors, rear camera, collision warning, adaptive cruise control and lane guidance system (it will gently nudge the steering back on course when it senses you're crossing a white line). The interior is subdued yet stylish, though there is a bit more hard plastic than I'd like to see - and feel - in a higher-end car.

The problem is, there aren't many CNG fuel stations in the UAE. Abu Dhabi has just opened three in the city, with an eye for more in the future (many Abu Dhabi taxis have already been converted to CNG). According to Mecha, there is just one in Jebel Ali, so finding a place to fill up with gas is the most difficult part. The Adnoc stations on E11 between Abu Dhabi and Dubai have the capacity, and I paid Dh33 for a full tank. In combined motorway and city driving, the Passat reached 239.6km before running out and switching over to the petrol tank. That's less than the 460km range running on petrol, and significantly less than VW's very optimistic claims of 480km on CNG.

However, on the up side, VW says it emits 25 per cent less emissions with CNG than running on petrol for a total of 119g/km of CO2, and it would still average out to less money by filling up on gas alone as opposed to petrol, even here in the UAE.

It's good-looking, cargo space is cavernous, the level of luxury and room for passengers is high - there isn't much to dislike about this car, especially if you appreciate the added versatility of an estate. It would be more expensive than a normal petrol-powered Variant (which isn't available here, either), but the lower emissions and, more importantly, the ease at which this Passat Variant Ecofuel would fit into your normal life, makes it a viable alternative to reducing your carbon footprint on the road. In the next few years, with government initiatives leading the way, I wouldn't be surprised to see more CNG cars here in the UAE. I hope this VW will be one of them.

Price not available

Engine 1.4L, supercharged, turbocharged four cylinder

Gearbox Seven-speed DSG

Power 150hp @ 5,500rpm

Torque 220Nm @ 1,500rpm-4,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 4.4kg/100km (CNG), 6.8L/100km (petrol)