By John Brandon
Published January 07, 2013
It’s an age-old question: what do we do about heavy duty trucks and the high cost and consumption of fuel? These mighty machines are meant for hauling gear, transporting crews to job sites, and pulling massive trailers, but you often have to live at the gas station to keep them running.
The 2012 Ram 2500 HD CNG offers a new alternative. Outfitted with two compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks in the bed, it is a factory truck like no other. Other automakers offer full-size pickup CNG conversions, but Ram is the only one that builds its own in house.
So what’s the advantage?
Most important, a low cost of operation. CNG sells for significantly less than gasoline. The national average is currently $2.15 per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) vs. $3.30 per gallon of gasoline. In some places it can be had for as low as $1.00 per GGE. The upfront cost of the vehicle is high, about $11,000 more than the convention $46,505 Ram 2500 HD it is based on, but a lot of that can be recouped under heavy operation, and there are various tax incentives available for owners of CNG vehicles.
There’s also the added bonus of extra range. The base truck comes with an 8-gallon gasoline tank that offers only about 110 miles of driving, but you gain another 255 miles from the twin 18 GGE CNG cylinders. Customers can also opt for a 35-gallon gasoline tank for $350, which means a total range of 750 miles.
If the environment is your thing, CNG produces lower emissions than gasoline or diesel. National security hawks will also appreciate the fact that nearly all of the CNG sold in the U.S. is domestically-produced.
But there are a few trade-offs.
For starters, there are only a handful of public CNG fueling stations across the country. Doug Killian, Ram’s Engineering Program Manager, says that’s changing, especially in areas like New York and Los Angeles, but in Minnesota, for instance, there are only five CNG stations and the total nationwide is likely less than 1,000.
iPhone apps like CNGNow are available to help pinpoint stations in your area, but the vehicles are still best suited to fleet operators with their own central fueling facility. That said, if you have natural gas in your home, you can install a low-pressure pump that’ll fill up the truck while you sleep.
Another minor drawback for heavy-duty work is that peak horsepower on the 383 hp 5.7-liter HEMI V8 drops 20% at 5,000 RPM when using CNG. In fact, the Ram 2500 will automatically switch to gasoline under these conditions. In our tests, we rarely hit that engine speed, which is only necessary when accelerating under wide-open throttle, particularly with a heavy load.
For pulling out stumps, hauling a light trailer, or pushing through a muddy ravine, the torque on hand is more than adequate and you’ll never notice a difference. The only time we felt a slight loss of power was while merging into high-speed traffic from a dead stop. In one instance, when running out of CNG on the highway, the switchover to gasoline was accompanied by a loud thunk.
Low temperature presents a slight issue as well. In extreme cold, the truck has to start by using gasoline, switching to CNG once the engine warms up, so be sure to keep some fuel in that tank.
That said, operating the vehicle is incredibly straightforward. The valves on the CNG tank only need to be closed during shipping, and the vehicle uses a standard fuel gauge to show the level of compressed gas in the tanks. To fill it up you simply couple the hose to the CNG nipple, which is located behind the same door as the conventional fuel filler, and start pumping.
The most obvious drawback with having the CNG tanks is that you lose about one-third of the bed, but there’s still room to plenty of gear. The Crew Cab version we tested had room for six adults and offered plenty of headroom.