At first glance, the Honda Civic GX seems almost too good to be true. The Civic GX is the only factory-built NGV (Natural Gas Vehicle) available to the general public, and it's one of the cleanest-running cars you can buy. It never needs gasoline. It even offers a home-refueling system which means you'll never have to stop at a gas station, ever. It's based on one of the best compact sedans sold in America. The 2009 Honda Civic GX is priced at $25,860; buyers are eligible for a $4,000 Federal tax credit, while some states offer further incentives. Can the reality be this good? Read on.
Let me start by saying that I'm a big fan of compressed natural gas (CNG) cars. I first tested a Civic GX back in 2001, and after a week I came away wondering why all cars aren't powered by natural gas. Fast-forward eight years: I've just spent another week with a Civic GX, and my enthusiasm hasn't waned one bit. The Civic GX is clean, it's safe, and from the driver's perspective, it's almost totally transparent -- if I handed you the keys to a Civic GX and sent you out for a ride, you'd probably have no idea you were driving anything other than an ordinary gasoline-powered Civic. (Provided you didn't open the fuel-filler flap or the trunk, that is).
When I told friends and family that I was driving a Civic GX, most of them asked about safety. "Natural gas -- doesn't that stuff explode?" Well, yes; if it didn't, the car wouldn't move. But it doesn't explode anywhere near as easily as gasoline. Natural gas is lighter than air, so if it leaks -- not likely, as natural gas tanks are literally bulletproof -- it dissipates harmlessly into the air. Natural gas will only burn in certain concentrations, and its ignition temperature is about 1,200 degrees -- roughly twice that of gasoline. (In fact, in the event of a fire, the tanks are designed to vent the fuel before the fire gets hot enough to ignite it.) Compare that to gasoline, which is highly volatile, stored in simple plastic or metal tanks, and produces fumes that sink and pool near the ground. Frankly, I feel safer in a CNG-powered car than I do in a gasoline-powered car.
Look & feel
The Honda Civic is one of the best compact sedans on the market. It features a sleek, futuristic design outside and a nifty split-level dash inside, which sets the speedometer and fuel gauge above the steering wheel and just below eye level. The GX is equipped similarly to the mid-range Civic LX: Power windows, mirrors and locks, remote keyless entry, cloth seats, CD player, air conditioning, 5-speed automatic transmission, antilock brakes and a full complement of airbags. (There are no factory options; all GXs are created equal.)
Like all Civics, the GX has a roomy back seat with a perfectly flat floor, and it carries out family duty as skillfully as a mid-size sedan. The only real compromise is the trunk: Most of it is given over to the bulky CNG tank, leaving just 6 cubic feet of space, enough for some heavy-duty grocery shopping but not enough for a vacation (unless you're going to a nudist resort). The GX's engine is basically the same 1.8 liter four-cylinder found in other Civics, but power output is lower: 113 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque, compared to 140 hp and 128 lb-ft for gasoline-powered Civics. The difference isn't as big as you might expect; the GX has plenty of zip around town, though picking up speed on the highway requires a heavy foot and there's lots of tire noise at highway speeds -- both issues that plague gasoline-powered Civics as well. Handling is nimble and responsive -- considering the serious Earth-saving mission for which it was designed, the Civic GX is surprisingly good fun to zip through the curves.
Fueling an NGV is a bit different than filling a liquid-fueled car. The public stations I used all had orientation videos showing how it's done: Swipe your credit card, connect the filler hose to the car's fueling nozzle, turn the valve that seals the connection and starts the flow of gas, then stand back and wait. When the tank is full, disconnect the nozzle and off you go -- there's no topping off and no chance of spills. (Bonus benefits: The stations are immaculate and your hands don't smell like fuel after you fill up.) The CNG "pump" is basically a pressure-equalization system; one the hose is connected, fuel flows into the car's tank until the pressure is equal to the filling station's storage tank. Most natural gas stations have both 3,000 and 3,600 psi pumps. The Civic is a 3,600 psi car, so it can use either one, but it won't get a full tank of fuel from a 3,000 psi pump.
Natural gas is measured in GGEs (Gasoline Gallon Equivalent), and the Civic's tank -- limited by the size of the trunk -- holds 8 GGEs. EPA fuel economy estimates are 24 miles per GGE in the city and 36 MPGGE on the highway, nearly identical to a gasoline-powered automatic Civic (25/36). I averaged 24.5 MPGGE in mixed city and highway driving, which would give me a range of around 200 miles per tank -- more than enough for a commuter vehicle. Fueling stations are plentiful here in California, and more and more are popping up around the country. But one of the best aspects of the GX is that you can refuel at home using a device called the Phill -- the ultimate in convenience.
When it’s all said & done
By far, the Civic GX's best attribute is the fact that it doesn't rely on gasoline -- it burns natural gas, which, while still a non-synthetic solution, is available in plentiful quantities from domestic sources. (For now, at least.) The Civic GX's EPA air pollution score of 9.5 (out of 10) is the same as the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius, although the Civic GX has a larger carbon footprint. And the Civic doesn't have the mechanical complexity of a hybrid -- or, for that matter, a regular gasoline-powered Civic.
Figuring the environmental and fiscal impact of the Civic GX is tricky, because the price of natural gas differs from region to region. (I saw price variations of over 25% or just between local stations.) Home refueling with the Phill is generally much cheaper, but the savings are offset by the cost of the system ($4,000 retail plus installation, generally around $1,500). And the car itself is expensive -- at $25,860 it's $1,540 more than a Civic Hybrid and almost $7k more than a gasoline-powered Civic LX, though the GX is eligible for a $4,000 Federal tax credit. Some states and municipalities offer additional incentives, so it's best to do your homework before deciding if a Civic GX is a cost-effective solution.
Costs aside, I love the Civic GX. Lots of people talk about breaking our dependence on oil. With the Civic GX, you can actually do something about it -- with the safety of CNG and the practicality and reliability of a Honda Civic. Too good to be true? Nope. The Civic GX is really good -- and that's the truth. -- Aaron Gold