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CNG Civic: Green has rewards, challenges

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CNG Civic: Green has rewards, challenges

The top-line Civic Natural Gas has a satellite-Linked navigation system that includes a database of public-accessible fueling stations.

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POSTED July 18, 2012 6:46 p.m.

Honda has sold a natural-gas powered Civic since 1998, but it will make a bigger push this year to put more of these alt-fuel compacts in more garages.

Commercial fleets and utilities are the biggest users of natural-gas vehicles, which evolved as one remedy to meet air-quality mandates. Honda is the only major automaker to offer a retail vehicle powered by compressed natural gas. Its Civic Natural Gas (renamed this year from GX) uses a modified version of the standard Civic's 110-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It is the cleanest internal-combustion engine tested by the EPA and federally certified as an "Inherently Low Emission Vehicle" for zero evaporative emissions. The majority of compressed natural gas used in the U.S. is produced and refined here. And the car is built in Greensburg, Ind.

Along with the "green" rewards of ownership are other incentives. Natural gas prices range from $1.86 to $2.99 per "gallon," and a full tank (about the equivalent of eight gallons of gasoline) is capable of 190 to more than 200 miles. That doesn't compare to the gasoline-powered Civic's 300-plus range, but it is much farther than most electric cars. And fueling in public is somewhat easier. There are eight stations in San Diego County that pump CNG, and there is an option for a home-fueling station — and the home rate for natural gas is less than at the public pumps, a Honda spokesman said.

Fuel economy is 1 mpg less than for the standard Civic: 27 mpg city, 38 highway and 31 combined. But the bigger incentive for this Civic is that it qualifies for single-occupant, carpool lane stickers in California.

Honda sells a couple thousand a year and has upped availability this year to 197 dealers in 36 states, which are mostly in the West, Southwest and Southeastern states. Extreme cold — below minus-four degrees — can cause starting problems and can create fueling issues, such as leaks.

Sold in two trim levels, pricing starts at $27,095, including the $790 freight charge from Greensburg, Ind. The top-line model — $28,595 — adds voice-operated navigation that will highlight CNG stations and other points of interest. The pricing is about $5,600 more than a gasoline Civic, but the EPA estimates that a nat-gas driver will save $7,350 in fuel costs over five years of ownership.

The CNG engine has 110 horsepower compared to 140-hp in the gasoline Civic. Performance around town is good. Interstate merging requires a heavy foot, but cruising at 65 mph and higher is easygoing. The five-speed automatic will keep giving downshifts to get the job done as demanded by the driver.

Under the skin, the driving experience is Civic civil. Good seats, good sightlines and roomy for a compact with a comfy ride. But there is some noticeable reflection of the dashboard top in the windshield and the audio unit has small buttons.

The compromise in CNG is providing space for the tank that has to be strong enough to contain 3,600 pounds per square inch of pressurized gas. In the Civic, the reinforced CNG tank takes about half the trunk space, leaving 6 cubic feet. That's enough for many grocery bags but not large parcels. And the reinforced tank adds about 90 pounds over the standard Civic's curb weight.

As with a diesel-powered car, the owner will learn the locations of nearby fueling stations. And if one isn't close to home or work, the incentive tends to fade, or it would for me.

There is a learning experience for the first time fueling, mostly because two stations had broken pumps. The fueling process isn't difficult, and a video at the pump is fairly explanatory. Basically, attach and lock the high-pressure hose and flip the lever on the pump. There is a loud air lock, and the fueling begins in surges.

For those with smartphones or tablets, lists stations and pricing.

The owner of a Civic powered by natural gas makes a choice to be different and to do his or her part for cleaner air. And that person can drive with just a little more swagger when passing that car consuming imported oil.

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