With so much focus on electric vans, diesel/electric hybrids and the merits, or otherwise, of biodiesel, the potential of gaseous fuels as an environmentally-friendly power source has taken a bit of a back seat. That's something Volkswagen is determined to reverse with the arrival of the Caddy EcoFuel.
Capable of running either on compressed natural gas (cng) or bio-gas generated from landfill sites, it's already available on the other side of the Channel. What Van? has been getting to grips with a right-hand drive prototype that could go on sale here next summer, subject to a positive reaction from UK operators.
Exhaust emissions from a cng-fuelled engine contain around 90 per cent fewer particulates and 90 per cent less carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide (NOx) than are generated by a diesel engine, says VW. Caddy EcoFuel has the further environmental advantage of modest CO2 emissions — 157g/km — but unfortunately does not at present qualify for exemption from the London congestion tax, says the manufacturer. However there is every expectation that it will.
Biogas enjoys many of the plus-points of cng and the fact that it is produced purely from waste makes it completely carbon neutral. Capable of holding 26kg of gas, Caddy EcoFuel's cng tanks sit under the vehicle and do not intrude into the 3.2m3 cargo area. They offer a range of over 270 miles.
A 13-litre reserve petrol tank is fitted too — EcoFuel is powered by a 2.0-litre 109hp four-cylinder petrol engine optimised to run on cng as well — in case you run out of gas completely. It allows you to travel a further 80 miles and the engine switches from cng to petrol automatically. Petrol is also needed because that's what the engine starts on.
At 666kg payload capacity is lower than the 720kg-to-724kg offered by conventionally-powered Caddy vans, but most owners should be able to live with the slight reduction.
The gas filling point sits behind the fuel flap next to the petrol filler cap and a gauge on the dashboard tells you how much cng you've got left. That aside, the vehicle's cab interior is much the same as that of an ordinary Caddy; in fact the van is produced in the same factory as the rest of the Caddy range.
Turn the ignition key and you will be rewarded by a loud click from the rear of the vehicle followed by the, slightly uneven, beat of the idling engine. It ticks over quietly and emits very little more noise once you're out on the highway.
EcoFuel's on-the-road behaviour won't leave you feeling short-changed. It pulls away strongly from rest, offers ample mid-range performance and is a perfectly adequate high-speed motorway cruiser. Frankly its engine is just as capable as a diesel or straightforward petrol power plant of equivalent size and output, and a user-friendly five-speed gearbox makes it easy for the driver to exploit its potential.
Unfortunately the engine's low decibel count highlights all the other sources of noise on the vehicle, especially the droning emitted by the tyres, and the handling is marred by the somewhat over-assisted steering.
If there's a drawback to EcoFuel, it's the lack of availability of cng. There are precious few publicly-accessible pumps. EcoFuel will, however, run on the natural gas that's piped into your home, and you can use that if you are prepared to spend upwards of £2,000 on a slow-fill refuelling compressor. That will reduce your per-mile fuel cost to roughly half that incurred by a conventionally-powered van.
So does Volkswagen's latest offering have potential? In principle, yes; it's certainly environmentally-friendly enough. But the lack of a refuelling infrastructure — and the UK price tag, which has yet to be revealed — might just trip it up. And don't forget that if cng starts to get popular, the government will undoubtedly slap a huge duty burden on it; because that's what governments do.