Friday, January 20, 2012

Honda Civic Natural Gas - A Clean Alternative

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 the GX model in small quantities over the last several years, particularly to fleets, it now has "Natural Gas" emblazoned on the trunklid, with a blue CNG diamond below it, and plans to make the car more widely available.

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

The good news is substantial. 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. 140). And the thing runs extremely cleanly 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 less expensive than gasoline. I paid $2.40 and $2.50 per gallon (equivalent). 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. I made two fuel stops instead of one during my test week. Also, the car is more expensive than a standard Civic. List price for my car, with the Navigation system, came to $28,425, which is 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. But those are the only downsides.

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 information. Both locations had attendants, and I needed both of them.

The first station, Clean Energy, had a short video training built into the pump that I had to watch before pumping. 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 shows gallons and cost but also percent of full. At 100 percent, you carefully remove the nozzle and you're done. See a short video by my friend Chris.

Trillium provided a different type of connection but was basically the same. 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 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 run its own fueling stations, have been the primary clients for CNG cars. 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 buses fleets use CNG, and I can see that it would be handy. Surely someone else could offer a CNG car, right?

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