Hybrids are hogging the fuel economy limelight, but there's another alternative that's flying below the radar. It's the 2005 Honda Civic GX and it runs on compressed natural gas (CNG).
You probably already know about the Honda Civic itself. It's the ultimate workhorse that gets commuters to work or college students to class. In its common gasoline-powered setup it's already pretty darned fuel-efficient. (And just so we're clear, here, the Civic GX in this review is an '05 model, not the all-new 2006 Civic. A redesigned version of the Civic GX will, however, be appearing early in 2006.)
Now, take the basic Civic; cut the trunk space in half (to allow for the larger natural-gas tank); couple the 1.7-liter, four-cylinder engine to a continuously variable transmission; offer some attractive tax incentives; add a bunch of NASCAR-style stickers touting zero emissions and carpool lane entry; and you have the GX. It stickers for $21,760 and gets the equivalent of about 30 miles per gallon of gasoline (the EPA estimates 30/34 mpg).
So far, you might be really pumped about this car (pun intended). But there are a few bumps on the road to Civic CNG bliss. How much these problems bother you will depend on what you use the car for. We'll tell you up front that, as a commuter car or for around-town transportation, the GX might be a panacea for you. Using it for road trips is not out of the question, but it does require advance planning. But don't worry that the interior dimensions have been reduced; rear legroom is unaffected even though trunk space is diminished by the larger fuel tank.
The GX can be refilled at numerous sites in metropolitan areas. Our first experience with putting CNG into our test car was an adventure, and the strange noises the mechanism emits had us needlessly ducking for cover for fear of explosions. The "pump" was located in a cul de sac in a remote area, and there was no helpful attendant to answer questions. We resorted to using a telephone to call for help and spoke to an operator in Texas who seemed as baffled as we were. We eventually aborted our refueling efforts only to find, as we drove away, that we had successfully filled the tank.
Our subsequent refuelings were much smoother. However, on a trip from Los Angeles to Monterey, there was only one station along the way. As we pulled up to the pump another CNG driver appeared and breathlessly asked "Is it working?" in a tone that led us to believe it frequently was not. We were relieved to find everything in order and shuddered to realize we would have been dead in the water if it wasn't. The next pump was some 125 miles up the road in Salinas.
When we first began refilling our test car, CNG was $1.79 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline and cost about $8.50 for a typical fill-up. Only two weeks later the price had shot up to $2.50. (Because the fuel is pumped at different compression rates, the exact amount of fuel in the tank is difficult to gauge. Consequently, we couldn't provide our own fuel economy findings. All we can confirm is that the GX will go 200 miles on an average of $10 worth of CNG.)
However, there is a very attractive alternative, a unit that can be installed in your garage called the Phill. The Phill costs about $4,000 installed, but there is almost $3,000 worth of tax incentives available. This electric-powered device connects to your ordinary city gas line and takes much longer to fill the GX (average of about 4 hours but up to 12 hours for a complete fill-up). But who cares if you are asleep anyway? Also, natural gas metered at homes costs much less; one Los Angeles GX owner reports it is nearly $1 a gallon equivalent.
After seeing the CNG stickers on the GX, everyone wants to know what it's like to drive this car. Rated at just 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, the GX is 15 hp shy of the standard four-cylinder Civic. The CVT gives it an odd feeling at first, since the rpm are nearly level even during acceleration. But after a few days in the GX, we began to feel that the CVT made more efficient use of the lower-horsepower engine. It seemed pleasantly responsive around town, and it cruised nicely at highway speeds. On long climbs, the engine gets buzzy and feels a little weak. There is one peculiarity — in reverse, the GX feels like it backs up more slowly than other cars.
We were interested to see the cold hard numbers on the Civic GX so we took it to the test track. Accelerating from zero to 60 took 12 seconds which by today's standards is about as slow as it gets. This surprised us since, as we mentioned, it felt peppy around town. Other Edmunds drivers reported the same impression that the acceleration, coupled with agile handling, made the GX seem very capable. For those keeping score, the braking distance from 60 to zero was 132 feet (ABS is standard on the GX).
There is an overwhelming sense of agreeableness to this Civic. It humbly does what you tell it while providing comfort and intelligent practicality. We are tempted to say that driving it is the ultimate no-brainer, but that would be selling it short. It is so likeable that, at times, this quality actually calls attention to itself.
Will the GX save you money compared to a gasoline-powered Civic? It's hard to make an accurate comparison because the cost of both CNG and gasoline is so volatile. If you installed the Phill and pumped CNG at $1 equivalent it could be one-third to half the price of gasoline. At the CNG pump where we paid from $1.79 to $2.50, the thrifty Civic HX, with an EPA rating of 35/40 mpg (automatic transmission) could match the GX. Then, consider the higher upfront cost of the GX which costs as much as $5,000 more than a base DX. The upfront costs could be offset by tax credits depending on where you live. So, as you see, there are many tradeoffs to be considered as you make your decision.
Despite the limitations imposed by the sparse infrastructure of the refilling stations, the GX is a real-world alternative to rising fuel costs. Environmentalists will feel good that it spews almost nothing into our skies (the EPA dubbed it the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle on Earth); patriots will like the fact that they are shunning Saudi oil; time- and cost-conscious commuters will love using the carpool lanes and paying only a buck a gallon for fuel. With all these advantages, it's a wonder that the car-buying public's radar hasn't picked up on this stealth attraction.