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WASHINGTON -- General Motors said it will sell a version of the Chevrolet Impala sedan with the ability to switch between gasoline and natural gas, part of the automaker's plan for taking advantage of a U.S. drilling boom that has made natural gas a more viable fuel for cars.
The dual-fuel Impala, announced today by CEO Dan Akerson at a conference here, will have one engine and two fuel tanks -- one for gasoline and one for compressed natural gas. That means drivers could almost instantly switch between fuels, depending on what is cheap and available.
"There will be nothing like it on the road -- literally," Akerson said in his prepared remarks.
Multiple automakers already sell CNG-fueled pickups. By launching a full-sized sedan that runs on natural gas, GM is signaling that it sees a future for the fuel in the passenger-car market.
Akerson said the sedan will have a combined range of up to 500 miles, with a large enough gasoline tank for 350 miles of driving and a large enough CNG tank for 150 miles. It is slated to go on sale next summer as a 2015 model.
GM said it will sell the CNG Impala to both fleet and retail buyers. But it's likely to appeal most to corporate and government fleet customers, which put a premium on fuel efficiency and generally have easier access to natural-gas fueling stations, said Alan Baum, an industry consultant in suburban Detroit.
"The thinking seems to be that there is some corporate fleet business to be had given the roominess of the car," Baum said. "But GM's focus has been on less fleet business for the Impala, not more."
He said the decision to put the technology on the Impala rather than another vehicle was "curious" given GM's repositioning of the nameplate as a showroom head turner with the spring launch of the redesigned 2014 model, which is pricier and more stylish than its fleet-heavy predecessor
Significant sales of a CNG model by the nation's largest automaker "could make GM a lead player in establishing widespread acceptance" of the technology, Baum said. "But it's obviously a long journey."
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