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Living with the natural gas Honda Civic

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  December 17, 2011 12:15 AM

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Honda Civics sell in more varieties than supermarket apples. There’s the stripper DX without air conditioning, the step-up LX, the fuel-saving HF, the ultra-fuel-saving Hybrid, the well-equipped EX, the EX with leather, and the high-performance Si. There’s a choice of sedan or coupe, manual or automatic.

I can’t even buy my favorite Pink Lady apples all year. The Civic, however, is the fourth best-selling car in New England. It’s always in stock, despite inventory shortages due to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

I’ve driven three 2012 Civics this year and none felt alike. Like many reviewers, I wasn’t impressed with the Civic EX sedan. But when I tried a sleek blue Si coupe, it was entirely different. A 201-horsepower engine never hurts, yet the six-speed manual, upgraded seats and fabrics, and flattering curves went leaps beyond the mundane sedan.

Then there’s the GX, a Civic just as boring as the EX save for one exciting footnote: it runs on compressed natural gas.

Honda’s been very quiet about the GX (renamed as the Civic Natural Gas for 2012) since it began marketing to government fleets 14 years ago. Honda sells a few hundred per year, mostly to gas utilities and municipalities in California and New York. Private sales have been restricted to four states with the highest concentration of public fueling stations. Now, Honda says it will offer the Civic Natural Gas in 37 states including Massachusetts, a move that spurred the model’s “Green Car of the Year” award.

Despite pipelines that deliver the cheap, clean-burning fuel to heat our homes and stoves, most Americans don’t know natural gas can be used as a motor fuel. The Civic Natural Gas and a new commercial line of GMC vans are the only natural gas-powered vehicles on sale in the US (Europeans have more choices, as usual). Most automakers see no incentive to sell them.

With the federal government investing billions in batteries and electric vehicles -- backtracking from an aggressive push for ethanol -- there’s nary a peep about alternative fuels like natural gas, let alone diesel. Natural gas emits less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline and nearly all of it is produced in the US and Canada. Plus, it’s cheap. I paid $2.38 per gallon equivalent in Massachusetts. In states like Utah, you could fill up the Civic for less than 10 bucks. Refueling takes less than five minutes, compared to the hours upon hours EVs require.

At the end of this month, the 50 cent-per-gallon tax credit for selling compressed natural gas and $4,000 buyer tax credit for the Civic will expire. A bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives would extend and increase the amount of credits available to manufacturers, buyers, and fuel retailers. Betting on today’s Congress, it’ll stay locked in a file cabinet.

Yet natural gas isn’t all that practical in a compact car. More than half of our Civic’s trunk was cordoned off to accommodate the enormous 3,600-psi gas tank, which holds the equivalent of 7.8 gallons of gasoline. That leaves room for one carry-on luggage and two grocery bags. Overall highway range is reduced to about 240 miles, and even less in city driving.

When the gauge drops, good luck. There are 11 public stations in Massachusetts and just one in Connecticut. While MBTA drivers regularly refuel with compressed natural gas (the agency runs 358 buses), to the average driver it’s a little unsettling. I went to three different stations, and each pump had its own frustrating way of clamping onto the car’s nozzle. Struggle with the hose, and it’ll blow out excess pressure every time you interrupt the seal. Thankfully, like with high-voltage EV plugs, a CNG pump won’t switch on until the connection is perfect. Loud hissing ensues.

You won’t explode. Natural gas is harder to ignite than gasoline (an exact five to 15 percent gas-to-air mixture is required) and because it’s composed of lighter-than-air methane, it dissipates rapidly and won’t settle on the ground. The thick-walled metal tank is built to tougher specifications than typical plastic/rubber gasoline tanks. Should a leak spring, the Civic Natural Gas features a tank shutoff valve, just like you have for the stove. (Honda’s experience with high-pressure storage has been realized on its hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity.)

Fuel economy doesn’t improve a smidge, at 27 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. I averaged 35 mpg over 470 miles. The Hybrid trim is rated at 44 mpg both in the city and on the highway.

The Natural Gas trim is the most expensive Civic, at $26,925 (ours was $28,425 with navigation). The expiring tax credit won’t make that easier to swallow. And despite its 12.7:1 compression ratio and 130-octane fuel, this Civic makes 30 less horsepower than the gasoline version. It’s so slow the digital speedometer ticks in steady, single digits when the pedal’s floored. My toilet bowl is sportier.

Maintenance is easy, though. Honda modified the intake and exhaust valves, valve seats, and fuel injectors. There’s no fuel pump since the gas is stored at high pressure. Other than that, it sounds and smells like your average four-cylinder Honda.

Ultimately, this Civic will continue in obscurity, and not just because the government has failed to promote a good, cheap motor fuel. Natural gas faces the same problems as electricity. It’s not easily (or cheaply) stored in small, high-energy containers. Fuel stations are pricey to build and often inaccessible. Road trips beyond 200 miles are close to impossible.

Lately, Honda’s been criticized for falling behind the competition and not doing enough to innovate. With the Civic Natural Gas, the company is a genuine crusader.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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