How Far Would You Go for the Planet? Part I: Natural Gas Civic

Going "Au Naturel" With Honda's Civic GX

How Far Would You Go For the Planet? Part One

Imagine being able to snooze a little longer, skip a stop at the gas station, and still leave the driveway with a perfectly full tank of gas. And what if we told you that this gas only cost $1 per gallon? Sounds crazy, right? But people who own the natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX and its "Phill" refueling tank are living that life. Moreover, they're reaping VIP privileges unbeknownst to the general driving public — tax breaks, solo access to California's high-occupancy vehicle lanes and a clear environmental conscience.

While natural gas has played a silent second to the hybrid buzz in alternatives to all-gasoline cars, enthusiastic owners make a positive case for their eco-friendly cars. The Honda Civic GX sedan is the only car available to consumers that operates entirely using natural gas. Available in select California dealerships since June 2005 for a sticker price of $21,425, the 2005 Civic GX received the cleanest emissions ratings from the EPA and a 2004 award as "America's Greenest Car" from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The 2006 Civic GX, based on the all-new Civic sedan, will be introduced in January but will still only be available in California.

Those awards are nice and all, but until Honda teamed up with FuelMaker — producer of the Phill, at-home refueling system in April 2005 — owning a natural gas vehicle was hardly a practical proposition given the limited refueling infrastructure nationwide.

Made by the FuelMaker Corporation, the Phill allows owners to conveniently fill their gas tanks from their home's own natural gas supply, giving new meaning to the term "self service." The ceramic unit is about the size of a mini refrigerator and can be installed inside or outside the garage. It operates using a "slow fill" that prevents heat buildup, instead of the fast fill process of a filling station. Although a slow fill can take up to 12 hours, the cost savings has owners bragging about the no-mess, no-fuss, no oil fixture.

The deal gets even sweeter for Southern Californians. As of October 19, 2005, SoCal residents who buy the GX can get the Phill free for 48 months, with no obligation.

Committed to the Environment Suzi Chen Raymond and her husband, Bud, use solar cells to power their Los Angeles home. Both have a deep interest in owning all environmentally friendly vehicles and had owned electric cars. When Suzi became pregnant, she knew she would need a car that could travel longer distances than her electric-powered Toyota RAV4, which had a range of about 100 miles per charge.

"It wasn't a practical car," Raymond said. "I knew I would need something to get back and forth to class."

While Bud kept his all-electric Ford Ranger EV, they replaced Suzi's RAV4 with a Toyota Camry. But that didn't make them happy. So they began to look at greener alternatives.

Their search for a Toyota Prius hybrid left them frustrated. Most of the models they came across were loaded with options that drove up the sticker price.

"For the Prius, that base price [$20,975] is nearly impossible to find," she said. "When we looked at the cars, the average Prius was $25,000 to $30,000. This is because of all the nifty gadgets and luxury items available for the Prius. I didn't really need a GPS system for city driving."

One of her husband's friends told them about the natural gas Civic GX. After checking out Honda's Web site and visiting a local dealer, the Raymonds ended up with a silver 2005 Honda Civic GX for $21,000. Antilock brakes are available for an additional $850 on the GX, but the Raymonds' car didn't have this option.

The Color of Money Suzi Raymond then purchased and installed the Phill tank this summer for $3,500, but with a $2,000 rebate and a 100-percent tax credit, her long-term costs were negligible. (The Phill can also be leased for $34 to $79 per month, plus installation).

In fact, Raymond's overall fuel costs have gone down significantly. While purchasing natural gas at a filling station cost her $2.10 per gallon, filling her tank through the Phill costs only $1 per gallon — the lowest per-gallon price of any available vehicle fuel available to general consumers. Combine that with her average fuel consumption of around 40 mpg, and Raymond is ecstatic.

"We just got our gas bill last month and I used $20," she enthused. Raymond also gets more gas in her tank by slow filling at home than she would at the local filling station. "It's nice not having dependency on regular gas with gas prices going so high," she said.

"[Owning a Civic GX] reminds me of the RAV4 where you can just come in and plug in the car at night," she said. "You don't have to worry about looking for a gas station. That was always an issue." She ran into a low-fuel situation only once, while on vacation in Las Vegas, when the natural gas filling stations were closed. The Civic GX's tank holds 7.2 gallons, and the longest distance the Raymonds have traveled on one tank was 260 miles.

Raymond was pleasantly surprised by the Civic GX's drivability. "I like it because [the car's continuously variable transmission (CVT) is] smoother than a regular [automatic transmission]." Even with just 100 horsepower on tap in the natural gas Civic, Raymond is pleased with the car's acceleration and reports that it's up to the task of merging into high-speed freeway traffic.

It's Not Always Easy Being Green There is one downside for the new mom: The gas tank in the GX takes up considerable space, leaving far less room for the trunk than in a conventional Civic (7 cubic feet versus 12.9 cubic feet ordinarily). This presents a problem when Raymond needs to carry more than a few baby toys, a diaper bag and a stroller.

"The trunk space was one of our main concerns when we purchased it," she explained. "The stroller fits in the back and that about does it for the space." To create more storage room for vacation travel, they've purchased a flatbed hitch that allows them to haul a small camping trailer. The sedan's lack of trunk space, however, could be a deal killer for less devoted environmentalists.

The convenience and cost savings of the Phill home refueling device make a strong case for natural gas cars like the Civic GX. Still, both the automotive industry and the federal government will have to take significant strides in building up the country's natural gas infrastructure before Honda can consider expanding sales of the GX throughout the rest of the nation. For the millions of consumers who would like to adopt Raymond's $1-per-gallon fuel costs, the best advice for now is to encourage your elected officials to support natural gas technology — then cross your fingers.

See also: How Far Would You Go for the Planet? Introduction Part Two — The Prius Number Crunchers Part Three — Diesel's Greener Bill of Health

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