Why don’t we have more natural gas vehicles on American roads? Europe is swimming in vehicles that burn the stuff, but in the U.S. the only option is the 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, formerly known as the Civic GX. It seems kind of crazy, because natural gas is about half the price of gasoline (on a per gallon basis) right now.
I’ve heard numerous reports of people wanting to convert their cars to run on natural gas to take advantage of the great price advantage, but few converters want to take on single cars — they’re more after fleets of them. People with used conversions to sell are demanding and getting premiums now.
The Honda Civic Natural Gas is, by some measures, the cleanest car on the road. There are big emission advantages in CO2, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and more. It’s available only in sedan form, with a 1.8-liter engine. A five-speed automatic is the only choice. Fuel economy is 27 city/38 highway, which is a lot better when the natural gas price advantage is factored in. A new feature is also available: satellite navigation, which includes a searchable database of CNG stations (important under the circumstances).
The main reasons to hesitate before buying a Civic don’t have much to do with the performance of the car. I’ve driven it, and because it’s really not a major modification from a conventional Civic, there’s no great adjustment necessary. The price of around $25,000 is a bit steep, but it’s aided by some state-based subsidies, and a huge advantage in California is that one person can drive it in the HOV lanes. The range is not as great in a natural gas car, because of reduced energy content — you’ll make more stops at gas stations.
That’s not a huge obstacle, but the shortage of natural gas fueling stations is the real show stopper. There are only 900 CNG fueling stations in the U.S., and only half of those are open to the public. They’re scattered around, too —five states don’t have any at all.
The good news is that Honda made its own natural gas filler, called the Phill, so you could “gas up” at home the same way you charge an electric vehicle. The bad news is that the company that makes the Phill went bankrupt in 2009. Nevertheless, home refueling is the way to go with natural gas.
Honda has hired Gladstein, Neandross and Associates to promote the Civic Natural Gas in 19 states in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. You can order one in 33 states now, and five others will be offered by the end of the year.
If we’re lucky, the Natural Gas Act (HR 1380), beloved by financier T. Boone Pickens, will get passed, because it provides tax credits for buying CNG cars and for purchasing fuel, too. And it also offers incentives for companies to install natural gas fueling stations. If the natural gas legislation passes, it will be a huge boon to this always-promising but never off-the-ground alternative fuel. But support for the bill is wavering, especially among Republicans. Without some shot in the arm like that, CNG is likely to lose the race to electrification. And all the action will be in fleet trucks.