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Natural gas cars: Clean, green, going nowhere

For drivers getting hammered by high pump prices, the Honda Civic GX, fueled by natural gas, would seem like an ideal option. But the alternative energy source faces challenges.
Image: The Honda Civic GX
The Honda Civic GX looks like any other Honda Civic, but unlike ordinary Civics, the car is powered by natural gas.Honda

Running a car on the same fuel you might use to cook your dinner or heat your home may sound odd to most drivers, but it’s music to the ears of John O’Dell.

A year ago, faced with a 116-mile round-trip commute to his office in Southern California and a $100 weekly gasoline bill, O’Dell switched from a Subaru Outback to the Honda Civic GX, a factory-modified model that runs exclusively on natural gas.

So far, the results have been pleasing, says O’Dell, senior editor at automotive research Web site

To fill his car’s tank, O’Dell visits natural gas fueling stations in Southern California and uses Honda’s home refueling kit (called the “Phill”) that taps into the same gas line that could be used to fuel home appliances. Instead of $4 for a gallon for gasoline, he’s paying on average between $2.12 and $2.22 a gallon to fuel up his Civic GX and getting as much as 33 miles per gallon — more than the combined 29 mpg rating of the regular Civic.

Best of all, says O’Dell, he’s zipping down the high-occupancy vehicle lanes in California based on his car’s classification as a low-emission vehicle.

“The principal reason for owning a GX is economics,” said O’Dell. In addition to cutting his fuel bill by two-thirds, he is also paying less to his mechanic because natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels and causes much less wear and tear on an engine. The vehicle also has a high resale value, based in part on its special status in California’s HOV lanes.

But natural gas cars have their limitations. The GX is the only production car available in the United States that runs on compressed natural gas, or CNG, and is sold only in New York and California, the two states where there are enough refueling stations. The Big Three U.S. automakers  ceased making such vehicles a few years ago.

The limited availability of fueling stations and the car’s restricted range are other drawbacks.

A number of independent companies sell conversion kits for a few thousand dollars that will retrofit gasoline-powered cars to run on CNG, yet the number of natural-gas powered cars on U.S. roads is a tiny fraction of the around 15 million vehicles sold each year in the United States. Currently, 116,131 of the 634,562 alternative fueled vehicles in use nationwide  run on natural gas, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Natural gas is getting another look as a fuel, particularly for transportation, because of the expected boom in American natural gas production, which is dragging down its price.

This November, a measure that will appear on California’s ballot that proposes the sale of $5 billion in bonds to fund alternative energy rebates for vehicles, including natural gas-powered cars and trucks, and also incentives for the research, development and purchase of renewable energy technology. Training and education initiatives in this field will also receive grants.

Texas billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is the primary sponsor of the measure though his company Clean Energy Fuels Corp.

The little-known GX sedan has excellent green credentials. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently named it the cleanest mainstream car on the road in its annual listings of “greenest” and “meanest” vehicles, based on output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, both during the manufacturing process and on the road.

Despite its fuel-efficiency and green status, the natural gas car seems destined to remain a niche player in the auto industry, according to Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of the forthcoming book “Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability.”

Honda currently produces about 1,000 units of the GX each year and has plans to increase production only modestly, he said. Most vehicles running on CNG are municipal bus fleets, taxis, trucks or other commercial vehicles, and it’s expensive to install natural gas tanks in vehicles and build fueling stations. What’s more, there’s a limited amount of natural gas available for transportation use because most of the U.S. supply is used to make electricity, he said.

“Some countries have one million cars on their roads running on natural gas — countries like Brazil and Argentina,” Sperling said. “In countries like that where there’s a lot of natural gas available for cars it makes sense and it’s a fabulous fuel, but it’s still a short-term transportation fuel here.”

More immediately, very few natural gas fueling pumps exist nationwide, and gas stations are unlikely to build more if the number of natural gas cars on the road remains insignificant. Honda’s “Phill” home refueling kit costs a few thousand dollars, and refueling the GX can take up to 16 hours if the tank is empty.

Another issue is range. The GX manages about 220 to 250 miles on a single tank, according to Honda, while the regular Civic can get some 500 miles on a tank. The reduced range makes the GX suitable as a commuter car, as the average American’s commute is around 30 miles round-trip, but there’s a concern that on longer drives, without the security of a fuel pump on “every corner,” you can become stranded, notes Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at

There are other drawbacks, too, Reed said. The engine is not as powerful as a regular Civic, and the trunk is smaller (to accommodate the fuel tank). And at $24,590, it’s substantially more expensive than a regular Civic, which costs $17,700 for a mid-trim model, he said.

“So you’d need to have strong conviction to own an environmentally responsible car, and a strong aversion to high gas prices,” said Reed. “The regular Civic is already getting good mileage, and the price premium you’d pay for the GX is already a tough nut to crack. But it does get you into that car pool lane.”

For O’Dell, the pluses outweigh the minuses. He reckons that when the extra cost of the GX is weighed against the money he saves on fuel, lower maintenance costs and government credits, he figures he’ll pay off the $6,890 difference over the regular Civic in fewer than seven years.

“What you have left is the value of your time,” he said. “With a home refueling station, you don’t have to go off the highway to refuel; you just plug in the car and go to bed at night, and if we ever start rioting in the street because of the cost of gasoline I’ll still be getting natural gas for my car at home.”