Thirteen years after launching its natural gas-powered Civic as a low-emission, low-fuel-price vehicle for public utilities and other business fleets, Honda is expanding availability to more consumers than ever.
For the first time, car shoppers in 30-plus states should find natural gas-powered Civics sitting on lots at select Honda dealerships.
Key benefits for buyers: Natural gas prices can be 35 percent less than gasoline and the car qualifies for high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane usage in many states, including those who have failed to provide or recently rescinded HOV access to gas-electric hybrids.
A big drawback: Finding a convenient place to fill up when you're away from home.
Named the 2012 Green Car of the Year by the California-based Green Car Journal, the 2012 Civic Natural Gas sedan looks like a regular Civic. The words "Natural Gas" on the trunk lid are all that visually differentiate it on the outside.
Formerly called the Civic GX, the Civic Natural Gas sounds and drives like a regular Civic, though there's less torque available from the four-cylinder engine than there is in other Civic sedans.
The 2012 Civic Natural Gas also can't be had with a manual transmission, leather seats or sunroof.
But with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $26,925, the 2012 Civic Natural Gas has the highest starting retail price of any 2012 Civic model.
Indeed, the starting price for a base, 2012 Civic Hybrid, which has a gasoline-powered four cylinder supplemented by an electric motor and which has a higher government fuel economy rating than the natural gas-powered Civic, is $24,820.
A base, 2012 Civic sedan without hybrid or natural gas-using powerplant has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $16,575.
Honda is the only mass-market automaker producing a natural-gas car on a factory assembly line, though other carmakers, including Ford, have long offered natural gas vehicles to business fleets.
A consumer should consider installing a natural gas dispenser at his/her home when buying a Civic Natural Gas. A home refueling station, which is powered by electricity, has a compressor that converts your home supply to the Civic-required pounds per square inch (psi).
Without a home refueling station, consumers have to do what I did on my test drive, which is find places to "gas up." And that used up precious time one busy workday morning, because even in environmentally inclined California, it may not be easy to find natural gas to put into a consumer car.
The test car rode like other Civics. I felt road bumps nearly all the time, and the interior, while roomy, was not well-insulated against outside noises.
As in other 2012 Civics, there is a futuristic feel behind the wheel. It's primarily because big digital speedometer numbers and other typical car gauge data are clustered in a long, raised screen atop the dashboard in front of the driver.
But seat cushions in the tester felt a bit cheap, and hard, gray plastic dominated inside. In the test car, the hard plastic trim next to the driver's side window on the inside of the door would groan when I put my elbow or any pressure there.
Rear brakes are the less expensive drums, not discs like they are in the Civic Hybrid.
Trunk space is compromised by the 3,600-psi natural gas tank that sits behind the rear seatbacks, which do not fold down. A trunk in a gasoline-only Civic sedan measures 12.5 cubic feet. There's 10.7 cubic feet in a Civic Hybrid trunk and just 6.1 in the natural gas model.
The 1.8-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder sounded strained when I pressed hard for sudden acceleration. The engine, which is a modified version of what's in other Civics, develops the same 110 horsepower as the Civic Hybrid. But torque peaks at just 106 foot-pounds at a 4,300 rpm vs. the 127 foot-pounds at a low 1,000 rpm in the Civic Hybrid.
Honda's big news is the navigation system in the upper trim level Civic Natural Gas model provides directions to places where consumers can gas up.
But the first place my nav system sent me, which was tucked off a cul de sac amid junkyards and sandblasting businesses near Sacramento, had no natural gas pump. It was a transportation office of a local school district, and the woman there told me they had gotten rid of all 18 natural gas-powered school buses long before, and the pump had been removed a year ago. Somehow, though, this site was programmed into the Civic's database.
Lucky I had enough fuel to drive to the next nearest location, which was in another industrial area, some 32 miles away. I called first to make sure they had a pump and were open.
Unfortunately, there was nothing overhead to keep rain from falling on me, and there was no attendant.
I had to stand at the credit card swipe machine and watch an instructional video on a little gray screen before the system would give me a two-digit code to type in to unlock the pump system.
I smelled the unpleasant odor associated with natural gas and heard a swoosh sound as I released the gas from the nozzle and into the car.
But the pump kept shutting off every few seconds, and it took the assistance of the station's remote phone operator to get the 8-gasoline-gallon-equivalent tank to provide the car's maximum 250-mile range.
I can't complain about the fuel cost, though. It was $2.38 per gasoline-gallon equivalent (GGE) instead of the going rate of $3.64 a gallon for gasoline, and the Civic Natural Gas easily averaged 28.5 miles per GGE.
NOTE _ States where dealers have signed agreements with Honda for the 2012 Civic Natural Gas are: Arkansas, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington state and Wisconsin.