Although its corporate headquarters hasn't made an official announcement, in recent months the CEO of Fiat SpA and the Chrysler Group LLC has talked up natural gas vehicles (NGV) as his choice for the kind of clean-fuel vehicles his company eventually plans to introduce in North America.

Even without the official word, comments by CEO Sergio Marchionne dating back to an auto industry meeting in Michigan in June indicate that the Fiat boss is bullish on natural gas, a fuel used extensively in his cars in Europe, according to a spokesperson for Washington, DC-based Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA).

"There has been no definitive announcement in the United States, but Sergio has called natural gas the 'fuel of the future,' and there is no question that is the fuel he favors for cars they bring over here," the NGVA spokesperson told NGI Friday.

A Fiat spokesperson in Italy confirmed for NGI that the company's plans for marketing NGVs in the United States are centered on marrying its successful compressed natural gas (CNG) technology with Chrysler's vehicles. It is not tied to the re-introduction of Fiats into the North American market; those will be gasoline-powered models. CNG marketing would be focused on fleets -- not individual vehicle owners.

"We are looking at introducing Fiat CNG technology to the U.S. via Chrysler," said Richard Gadeselli, a Fiat Group vice president for communications. "Given the current lack of infrastructure in [North America], the first steps would ideally be through public transport fleets and urban delivery and public utility fleets for the simple reason that by returning to a central depot each day, it resolves the current refueling issues."

While U.S. automakers have been emphasizing various electric vehicles for the alternative fuel market, it makes sense for Fiat, Europe's leading marketer for natural gas engines, to go in another direction. With the surge of North American natural gas production wrapped around the shale gas boom, Fiat reportedly is primed to push the NGVs as a clean fuel alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles.

While General Motors is marketing NGVs to fleet operators, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is the sole automaker now selling CNG-powered vehicles to retail U.S. auto buyers.

Fiat launched its "Natural Power" line of cars more than a decade ago, establishing its current leadership in the CNG vehicle market, Marchionne said last June in a keynote address to Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island in Upper Michigan. "Today natural gas is a rational alternative to gasoline that can provide a near-term environmental solution on the road to vehicle electrification," he said at that time.

The ready availability of CNG transportation technology is one of its strongest attributes, according to the Italian auto executive that now has the reigns at Chrysler, too. "Chrysler Powertrain is actively investigating applications for CNG and is exploring solutions that would drive people to the technology," Marchionne said.

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