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April 10, 2012 > Auto Review: Honda Civic

Auto Review: Honda Civic

Natural Gas, a cleaner way to go

By Steve Schaefer

In 20 years of automotive testing, it's rare when you get to drive something for the first time. Well, I just did. I spent a week with the Honda Civic Natural Gas which runs on, that's right, compressed natural gas (CNG). While Honda has offered natural gas power in the GX model in small quantities over the last several years, particularly to fleets, the car now has "Natural Gas" emblazoned on the trunk lid, with a blue CNG diamond below it; and the company plans to make the car more widely available.

The CNG sticker, apparently, is for emergency crews so they'll know that instead of a standard gas tank, your vehicle has an 8-gallon (equivalent) which is not only holding the fuel in a gaseous state at 3,600 psi, but takes up most of the trunk (hidden behind a panel).

The good news is substantial. In my Alabaster Silver test car, I averaged 30.5 miles per gallon (the EPA says 31), which is very slightly lower than a normal Honda Civic. Posted EPA scores are 27 City, 38 Highway. There was no difference in driving the car from the typical pleasant Civic experience, despite a difference of 30 horsepower (110 vs. the standard 140).

And the Civic Natural Gas runs extremely clean, thanks to CNG's inherently more efficient combustion. The EPA numbers are "9" for Air Pollution and "8" for Greenhouse Gas compared to "6" and "7" respectively for a standard Civic.

CNG is significantly less expensive than gasoline. I paid $2.40 and $2.50 per gallon (equivalent) at my two fill-ups. Oh, and CNG comes from the USA - not on tankers from hostile nations.

The bad news? Well, with a 250-mile range and few available filling locations, you've really got to watch your fuel gauge and plan ahead. If you own the car, there may be other options offered by your local utility.

Also, the car is more expensive than a standard Civic. My car, with the Navigation System, came to $28,425 - a lot for a compact car with cloth seats and a plastic steering wheel. It costs money to modify the Honda engine and tank to accommodate the different fuel, which is delivered at higher pressure.

The window sticker posted a warning that if the temperature is below -4¡ Fahrenheit (-20¡ Celsius), the engine might be harder to start; they also warned to not fast fill the fuel tank under those conditions. If this applies to you, it could be a good reason to avoid the Natural Gas model.

I had two "learning experiences" filling the tank. It doesn't take long, but you do need to go to places you normally don't. In my case, I visited the north and south ends of the San Francisco Airport, where two companies, Clean Energy and Trillium, offer unpretentious accommodations. You might drive right past the little row of pumps without even noticing unless you go to the websites and get the address information. Both locations had attendants, and I needed them.

The first station, Clean Energy, had a short video training built into the pump that I had to watch before pumping. At the end, it gave me a code number that I could use on subsequent fill-ups so I wouldn't need to watch the video again. It explained the method of clamping the filler nozzle onto the slim chrome filler in my car and working the pump. Unlike a typical gasoline pump, this one not only displays gallons and price per gallon but also percent full. At 100 percent, you carefully remove the nozzle and you're done.

The Trillium station provided a different type of connection but worked basically the same way. They didn't require any video viewing, but I might have liked one. They had a list of steps posted on the side of the tank, but I needed the attendant to show me that I had left a lever up, which is why the system didn't know I was finished.

If you don't plan on making too many long trips, this car could work great for you. That's why fleets, in which the vehicles have specific routes and the company can maintain its own fueling stations, have been the primary clients for CNG vehicles. The Civic, at this point, is the only standard CNG car you can buy. My companions at the filling stations were shuttle buses and commercial trucks. Some municipal bus fleets use CNG, and I can see that it would be handy.

With such a big upside and a small downside, you'd think that CNG powered passenger cars would be easier to find, but at this point, the Honda Civic Natural Gas is the only one.

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