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Around the World on Natural Gas in a VW Caddy Eco Fuel Van
Photography by Franz Janusiewicz
Here's the challenge: In a world where pithy quotes and sound bytes rule, and media focus tends to gravitate toward the fuel or technology du jour, how do you generate interest in a clean fuel used by hundreds of thousands of vehicles worldwide ... but gets little attention? You key in on the "worldwide" theme and come up with a bold plan to traverse the globe on your alternative fuel, in this case compressed natural gas.
That's how the thinking went with the organizers of the Eco-Fuel World Tour that began in Hanover, Germany, and traversed the globe, ending up in that same country some six months later. Adventurer Rainer Zietlow and his Challenge4 team—comprised of filmmaker and writer Falk Gunold, photographer Franz Janusiewicz, and driver/mechanic Florian Hilpert—set off in a VW Caddy van on an adventure that would cover nearly 28,000 miles over those months. The tour was sponsored by an array of high-profile companies including VW, OMV, Michelin, Panasonic, LUK, Walker, Nikon, and TÜV Rheinland.
While certainly a challenge, this adventure was not daunting for Zietlow, who previously led a successful attempt to set a world altitude record for production vehicles. He accomplished this in a production VW Touareg in 2005 with fellow leader Ronald Bormann and six other team members, reaching the dizzying altitude of 19,946 feet on the massive Ojos del Salada stratovolcano in the Andes at the Argentine/Chile border.
The goal this time around was to show the world that vehicles not only can do extraordinary things on an alternative fuel like natural gas, but also can drive clean and efficiently under everyday circumstances on streets in any country in the world. That was accomplished handily considering the team's VW Caddy Eco Fuel van traversed roads in 26 countries on five continents, with only 33 fueling stops required.
Along the way, the Eco-Fuel World Tour set a number of firsts, including an official entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first natural gas vehicle to complete an around-the-world trip. The team also achieved the longest distance for a natural gas vehicle without refueling, better than 1,925 miles between Cairo and Tehran, Iran. This feat was made possible by a 107 hp, 2.0-liter engine optimized for natural gas operation and substantial natural gas storage provided by nine CNG tanks that supplemented the VW Caddy Eco Fuel's four existing under-floor tanks. The vehicle additionally traversed heights that few natural gas vehicles have experienced, crossing a mountain pass between Chile and Argentina at elevations greater than 13,000 feet.
The Eco-Fuel World Tour followed a route that took the team from Cologne, Germany, to Vienna, Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo. Then they headed to Tehran and Bombay, through the Himalaya range, and into China, with legs through Bangkok, Singapore, and Australia. The car was air-shipped from the southernmost point of its route to Chile. From there, it was a trek through Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States to Canada. The final leg was by air back to Germany to its endpoint in Leipzig for display at the Auto Mobil International car show.
The Challenge4 team accomplished some pretty impressive environmental milestones during its travels. The natural gas VW Caddy emits about 27 percent less CO2 emissions than its gasoline engine counterpart, so over the duration of the tour's 28,000 miles about 1.9 fewer tons of CO2 emissions were produced. Running on natural gas also resulted in 60 percent less hydrocarbon emissions. Plus, there's the economic benefit because of the lower cost of natural gas. All told, the team saved over $4,000 compared to using gasoline and about $550 compared to diesel.
With its Guinness Book world record assured and its secondary mission accomplished—a donation of 10 cents per kilometer to the SOS Children's Village in Katmandu, Nepal — Zietlow is no doubt planning the next adventure and yet another way to show the seemingly impossible is possible, after all.
It was a grand adventure. But, you don't take on a challenge like the Eco-Fuel World Tour without an endgame. It was, of course, to achieve a new Guinness World Record—the first world crossing by a natural gas vehicle. Mission accomplished. Clearly, the tour was also made to illustrate a point, and a good one considering the world is so petroleum-dependent, and petroleum is becoming so sought-after and expensive.
The greater good accomplished by this trip is sharing in a big way that natural gas is an excellent motor fuel and that it's quite popular in many parts of the world. That said, this alternative fuel isn't as top-of-mind as, say, ethanol or biodiesel in America. Why? Well, we don't have the answer to that. Natural gas is found in abundance in the United States and is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, plus it's cheaper per gallon-of-gasoline equivalent than other motor fuels.
VW was a natural for this adventure because it produces several natural gas model vehicles in markets outside the United States, the VW Caddy Eco Fuel and the VW Touran Eco Fuel. We've driven the latter and have to say it's a seamless experience. Could it be time to bring similar models to these shores? – RC
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