The people at Washington Gas Light Co. would like to put a car in every garage -- a car fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG).

That's their long-term goal.

Right now, they and their peers in the American Gas Association would settle for CNG-fueled vehicles in every corporate and governmental fleet in America.

To make that point, Washington Gas officials joined representatives of 27 other gas companies here yesterday to launch a 5,000-mile "Rally for Fuel Savings," featuring six fleet-type vehicles equipped with CNG-powered engines.

The caravan includes four vehicles -- a Grumman van, a Chevrolet van, a Plymouth Reliant K passenger car and a Toyota pickup truck -- equipped to run on CNG or gasoline. Two other models, a Ford Ranger pickup truck and a Grumman van, will run on CNG only. A gasoline-powered Ranger truck will be included for performance comparison with the CNG-powered Ford pickup.

The caravan will be escorted by a 45-foot tractor-trailer carrying a reserve CNG supply. The rally has car-racing stars doing some of the driving -- Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford -- but it's not a race.

It'll end in Los Angeles on Nov. 5. A vintage, four-cylinder, gasoline-powered Ford Pinto subcompact traveling at 55 miles per hour, eight hours daily, could finish the same 5,000-mile journey in less than two weeks.

The point is not to finish fast. It is to make an impression, to hype an idea, gas association officials freely admitted yesterday. "It's an idea whose time has arrived," said Donald J. Heim, Washington Gas chairman and president. He said his company committed itself to making the idea reality four years ago, when it began converting its fleet to CNG use.

Today, 145 Washington Gas vehicles, about 15 percent of the company's total fleet, are using CNG -- giving the company an estimated annual fuel-cost saving of $163,000, Heim said.

The reason is that CNG is cheaper than gasoline. It costs about 45 cents to 80 cents per gallon-equivalent, compared with about $1.10 to $1.25 per gallon for gasoline, Heim and others said.

Washington Gas fleet maintenance costs also have declined appreciably, mostly because CNG burns cleaner than gasoline, according to Washington Gas fleet mechanic Horace Hopkins.

Hopkins said CNG also is safer than gasoline, because CNG has a higher ignition point and is stored in aluminum cylinders that generally are better constructed than traditional gasoline tanks.

"We have no drawbacks with CNG that I can see, yet," Hopkins said. But there is at least one. "You wouldn't want to get an all-CNG car at this point, because there aren't that many stations to fuel it," Hopkins said. "Right now, this is for fleets more than it is for families."

According to figures compiled by the McLean-based National Automobile Dealers Association, a total of 152 million vehicles were operating on U.S. roads as of Jan. 1. About 25,000 to 30,000 of those vehicles were fueled with CNG, according to the gas association. An indefinite, but minuscule, number of other vehicles were running on alternate fuels such as methanol and liquid propane.

Converting some 8 million of the nation's fleet vehicles to CNG could save 650,000 barrels of oil per day -- thus reducing the nation's foreign energy payments by about $7 billion, gas association officials said. And conversion also would make lots of money for the nation's natural gas industry, which has an abundance of natural gas to sell, the officials said.

Selling CNG year-round to fuel transportation also would help eliminate the highs and lows in the natural gas industry, which does well in the winter when traditional customers are heating their homes, but slumps in the summer when furnaces are turned off, American Gas Association officials said.