Large cars get bad press nowadays, given their thirst and the massive amounts of expensive-to-produce metal, oil and rubber needed to carry what is usually one person.
Not much you can do about that if you like large cars – unless you’re not too fussed about performance.
But if size and comfort is all, you can eschew V8s and other performance powerplants for something more efficient.
Or, in this case, less efficient but cheaper to run. My weekend trip to Tauranga and back came courtesy of a large, beige, Ford Falcon Fairmont fuelled by LPG.
For $47,990 you can have this car fitted with a 4.0-litre dohc 16-valve inline six, drinking petrol and producing 190kW of power at 5250rpm and 383Nm of torque.
Or, for $1500 more, you can have the E-gas version, featuring the same 4.0-litre dohc motor but this time drinking gaseous, not liquid fuel and offering less power and less torque – at 156kW at 5000rpm, and 370Nm at 2750rpm.
Ford says the LPG car’s four-speed auto gearbox’s shift-points have been recalibrated to offset the reduced efficiency. There are few visual clues that this car isn’t the normal Fairmont, unless you open the fuel flap – there’s a dedicated gas nozzle – or the boot. It’s apparently half full of spare tyre, its capacity reduced by 125 litres, to 379. And yes, that does make a difference on a weekend away; not only in terms of volume, but usefulness, for some of those 379 litres are small and virtually unusable spaces around that tyre.
How come? The interestingly-shaped petrol tank has gone, as you can’t hold gas in it. In its place are two cylinders mounted side-by side, intruding into what was the spare wheel well. That hasn’t affected the rear suspension, which is the same – bar stiffer springs because of the weight. But it definitely affects the boot volume.
Never mind. How often do you use the whole boot? I shut it, climbed aboard, and headed for eastern parts.
Inside the car is just the same as any other Falcon, with the same roomy feel, moderately comfy seats, plentiful cubbies and a clear and easy-to-use dash, with a trip computer fascinatingly reading off the car’s thirst.
Ford quotes 15.1 litres/100km; that’s what I saw initially, after pottering around Auckland and its semi-rural, hilly environs. Add in the return trip to Tauranga (in heavy rain and slow traffic) and back, plus more city running – almost all of it conducted in relax mode – and I ended up with 14.5 litres/100km overall, after nearly 600km. Not that it cost too much to refill, at 96 cents per litre.
That means – assuming the claimed thirst – a standard petrol-fuelled 4.0-litre Fairmont would cost $164.78 to go 1000km on 10.7 litres/100km at a petrol price of $1.54 advertised at the BP station I used for my LPG.
That compares to $144.96 for the LPG. At $20, more or less, saved per 1000km it’s going to take a while to save the premium, unless I’m a taxi driver.
If I am a taxi driver, I’m indisputably going to be comfortable, what with the powered driver seat. I’ll be glad I’ve got ABS brakes at my disposal. I’ll be glad of the comfy ride – I can’t confirm the on-the-edge handling given the truly atrocious weather conditions I encountered - and I’ll probably be glad of the reverse sensing system that’ll be handy when parking.
I might be less than impressed by the car’s power. It feels very relaxed with the gear lever in normal mode, though it’s brisk enough, thanks to a torque figure close to the petrol cars.
Shame there’s the occasionally jerky response to the throttle, or to gear changes, though perhaps that was a fault with this car’s electronic throttle control system, which failed heart-stoppingly at one point.
More heart-stoppingly for the chap following too close behind me, for as the Fairmont’s engine died, at 95km/h on what was luckily a long straight, my speed naturally dropped quite suddenly and without warning.
I was too busy indicating and getting myself swiftly on to the verge and out of the way to pay much attention to what seemed like a lot of cheery waves. Puzzlingly, once the lever was in park, the car switched off, a heart-calming minute-or-two allowed for and the ignition key once more turned, all was well, and remained so for the rest of the trip.
The car is currently being checked out. LPG refills? According to their web sites, BP offers a nationwide LPG network, complete with addresses; Shell has 80 LPG stations nationwide; and Rockgas has 300 refill stations at Caltex, Mobil and Challenge Stations, again with an easy-to-use website locator. All that said, when I wanted to top up on returning the car to Ford, I didn’t pass a single LPG station – although to be fair a small diversion would have sufficed to find one I already knew about.
In theory, locating refills isn’t hard, but you need to think ahead – luckily at 93 litres, the tank’s more generous than the petrol’s 68 litres. Overall? The boot’s compromised, but if you like cruising in comfort over high performance, you won’t be bothered by the LPG-fuelled Falcon’s relaxed style.
And if you do big distances, you will like the reduced cost at the pump – provided you’re willing to gamble that the price-tax differential won’t change.
By Jacqui Madelin