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Are Family Cars Next to Natural Gas Up?

As Chrysler and General Motors separately announced plans today to roll out alternative-fuel pickups and trucks, industry observers say more “bi-fuel” cars could be in the pipeline.

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Experts say they’re viewing new bi-fuel models from Chrysler and GM as a litmus test for the production of other natural-gas vehicles, such as family sedans. General Motors will offer bi-fuel Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 pickup trucks in the fourth quarter of 2012. Chrysler will start building heavy-duty Ram bi-fuel trucks in June. How the pickup truck performs will influence whether GM considers expanding into a wider range of vehicles, says Joyce Mattman, director of the company’s commercial products and specialty vehicles.

Currently, the only such bi-fuel car in the U.S. is the 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, formerly known as the Civic GX. While its sale has been limited to California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma, Honda is expanding its natural gas car to 200 dealers in 35 states. And given strong early sales and consumer interest, Chrysler and and other automakers are expected to suit by eventually offering such models, says John O’Dell, a senior editor for Edmunds.com.  (Chrysler was unavailable for comment.)

One road block, say experts: Few places for bi-fuel cars to fuel up. Natural gas stations, for instance, are currently only available in California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma. There are also home refueling units, which fills the car using a house’s natural-gas supply. O’Dell, who uses such a system, says he has a range of around 300 miles from his home. One way car makers are getting around the lack of infrastructure is by making bigger tanks. “The fuel tank in the Honda Civic Natural Gas eats up half of the trunk space,” says Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com.

Natural gas car are also more expensive than a regular-unleaded one, but experts say may be cheaper to own in the long run. For instance, the Honda Natural Civic Natural gas costs over $26,000 — as a suggested starting price — versus nearly $16,000 for the Honda Civic Sedan. But while a gallon of unleaded is pushing $4, natural gas goes for just $2.13 per gallon nationally, according to the Department of Energy. O’Dell says his natural gas Civic also saves him two hours commuting time; in California, a one-person natural gas driver can use the carpool lane.

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