Volvo’s Bi-Fuel Vehicle

What looks like a Volvo, drives like a Volvo, and is as safe as a Volvo, but produces less emissions than the most stringent emission standards (that of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles) in the United States? It’s the Volvo Bi-Fuel V70.

From the company that believes green is "not just a color, but a philosophy," the Volvo Bi-Fuel V70 runs on both compressed natural gas (CNG) and petrol (the European word of American gasoline). Available since early 1998 in seven European countries, the Bi-Fuel V70 offers Europeans an alternative to high petrol prices with plenty of benefits for the environment as well.

A short test drive in Tucson, Arizona, proved that environmentally friendly doesn’t mean a two-passenger vehicle with no storage and zero performance. In fact, the Bi-Fuel Volvo operated just like the regular European-version V70. Body style and handling are identical in both cars, as are the safety features. Power comes from a 2.5-liter five-cylinder internal-combustion engine, which is the standard engine in the regular V70, only it is supplemented by an injection system for the CNG. Power is slightly reduced from the standard 140 horsepower when operating on CNG. This was barely noticeable other than when driving conditions required rapid acceleration from a standstill, particularly if it was on a slight uphill grade. Under normal daily driving conditions, it would be difficult to notice a difference between operation on the two fuels.

Minor discrepancies

Inside, differences between the Bi-Fuel and the standard V70 are minimal. The Bi-Fuel vehicle has two fuel gauges for each fuel source and a switch on the dashboard that allows the driver to choose between fuels. The CNG tank is located behind the rear seat in the cargo area. As a result, cargo space is a bit reduced. As with all the CNG equipment in the Bi-Fuel V70, the aluminum-carbon tank is protected in an airtight casing and positioned away from the crumple zones.

volvo bi-fuel engine
The Volvo bi-fuel engine looks ordinary enough, but the CNG tank reduces space in the cargo area by a bit.

The CNG tank holds the equivalent of 7 gallons of petrol and has a range of 150-180 miles. With the petrol tank, total driving range is more than 600 miles. The CNG system is designed to run on methane and takes between one and four minutes to refuel, depending on the filling station’s capacity. Fuel is dispensed through a pressure fitting located next to the petrol inlet behind the same filler door.

When the CNG tank is selected via the dashboard switch, the car automatically starts on the conventional gasoline tank and then switches over to the natural gas within a few seconds. When the CNG tank runs empty, the vehicle automatically switches to the petrol tank. When this happened during the road test, the transition was seamless, with one insubstantial hiccup as the natural gas ran out and the petrol took over.

The Volvo Bi-Fuel V70 is one of a collection of bi-fuel and natural gas exclusive vehicles currently available. In the United States, natural gas vehicles are most frequently found in fleet use and then in small numbers. Natural gas and bi-fuel vehicles are more popular in Europe and are sold to individuals as well as in fleets. The Volvo Bi-Fuel V70 is not sold in North America. A handful of Bi-Fuel Volvos are in the States for research programs and as part of cities’ alternative commuter programs.

Natural gas, in both its compressed and liquefied forms, currently offers the greatest reduction in emissions (compared to gasoline) of all the liquid and gaseous fuels available for transportation use. Industry experts say that the earth’s natural gas supply will last beyond the 21st century even if the use of natural gas vehicles were to increase dramatically, making it a logical choice, at least for the short term, for alternative fuel vehicles.

Compressed natural gas is a pressurized form of natural gas, which is stored in cylinders at up to 3600 psi. CNG is usually compressed at a refueling station and "dried" to remove the water. Today’s natural gas vehicles use CNG most often, although liquefied natural gas (LNG) is increasing in popularity, especially in the heavy-duty truck market.

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