Long-Term Test: A Natural-Gas Guzzler

Will Honda's natural-gas-powered Civic GX blow other "green" cars off the road? See the first reports from our year-long in-depth test

For more on the Civic GX’s natural-gas powertrain and the innovative home-fueling station that keeps it going at a fraction of the cost of gasoline, launch the slideshow.

Behold the car that could displace the Toyota Prius as the eco-ride of choice. The new natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX uses domestically produced fuel–the same stuff your gas stove burns–that costs as little as one third the price of gasoline. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy calls it the cleanest-burning internal-combustion vehicle on Earth.

So what’s not to like? Only the scarcity of places to fuel up. Honda has sold compressed-natural-gas (CNG) Civics to fleet operators for eightyears-because they have their own CNG pumps, they don’t have to search for the rare public ones. But thanks to a new home fueling station, anyone can fill up in their driveway.

The car drives like any other, and no, it’s not a rolling bomb-CNGis actually less volatile than gas. Beyond its supply lines and fuel tank, the only difference between it and a regular Civic is a specialized fuel injector. Well, that and its gas bill.

2007 Honda GX
Price: $24,590
Horsepower: 113
Torque:109 lb.-ft.
Fuel economy: 29/39 mpg
Fuel capacity: 8 gallons (gas equivalent)

The Test
Over the next year, PopSci will drive the Civic GX and gas it up with the Phill home refueling station. It’s hard to argue with the GX’s fuel cost and environmental benefit, but is Phill enough to make the GX practical? Find out in regular updates on the following page.

Honda Civic GX Long-Term Test
Now and for the next year, PopSci is testing the new compressed-natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX. This is the first time Honda has offered a natural-gas vehicle to the public-the lack of open-access natural-gas fueling stations has made daily use by anyone other than employees of city governments, which operate their own stations, impossible.

But the recent release of the Phill home-refueling station, manufactured by Toronto-based FuelMaker, changes things. Now people who have the station installed at their house can refuel the GX overnight, since the system taps into natural-gas lines. There are many potential benefits to using natural gas: It’s the cleanest-burning fuel available, with virtually zero emissions; it’s a domestic fuel source; and, when using the home station, fuel costs drop to approximately $1.30 per gallon.

FuelMaker, which developed the home-refueling system with support from Honda, provided a Phill unit for our year-long test and installed it at automotive editor Eric Adams’s residence in New Jersey. Honda provided the Civic GX. Although the retail cost of Phill is roughly $4,000, the final cost to consumers can be significantly lower, because (depending on where you live) state and federal tax credits can offset or even completely cover the initial purchase price. Similar tax credits can offset the incremental cost of the natural-gas technology in the Civic, bringing the $24,000 purchase price-again, depending on your state-down to below that of the entry-level Civic’s $16,000 sticker.

The benefits of natural gas are huge, but how practical is this vehicle? Over the course of the next year, our tests will answer that. Is the home-refueling system easy to use? How convenient is it to refuel during extended road trips? Staff editors will have access to the GX for road trips, vacations and just running around town, and it will be used as a commuter vehicle from New Jersey to Manhattan-a roughly 50-mile round trip.

Read on to see what our editors have to say about the vehicle on the following pages.

Eric Adams, Automotive Editor
The Civic GX was delivered to PopSci in early August, but the installation of the Phill station took several weeks to complete. This was because the FuelMaker installer had to jump through some local and state ordinance hoops to get the required permissions-it’s only the second unit installed in New Jersey, so the assorted government agencies hadn’t seen it before. Then there were electrical issues at my house that caused the unit to repeatedly trip the circuit breaker. Once that was sorted out, Phill worked like a charm. It’s incredibly easy to use: Every night I come home, plug the nozzle into the car’s receptacle (the connection is firm, and there’s a break-away feature in case someone drives off without unplugging), and hit the â€start†button. A quiet fan starts operating, and the fueling process begins.

The GX runs on gas pressurized to 3,600 pounds (the fuel tank is wrapped in carbon fiber to add strength and improve puncture resistance), and the Phill station takes about 16 hours to fill the car from empty. The reason for the length of time is that, unlike public stations, which have compressors that can fill the car in roughly two minutes, Phill does not have a compressor built in, so it relies on the slow accumulation of pressure over an extended period. A 16-hour fill-up sounds like a long time, but in daily use you would never really refuel from empty. Few people drive more than 60 miles a day, so as long as you plug in at least every other day, you’ll be able to top it off in only five to eight hours.

My own early experiences with the car suggest virtually effortless use as a daily commuter; fueling is simple and the car’s 240-mile range ensures that I always have plenty of gas to motor around my area. But extended road trips require considerable planning and an awareness that this car is a different sort of animal. You really have to buy into that fact to use it, and appreciate that you might be inconvenienced when taking trips-and that some trips may not be possible at all. Indeed, some of the editors interested in driving the car have already had to be turned away at the door because their destinations were to areas that either didn’t have public stations or the stations that were public required accounts that the magazine hasn’t yet established (few of them actually take credit cards). Stations tend to be clustered around urban areas, but there are many in relatively rural spots. You can easily drive from New York to Washington, D.C., Boston, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, for example, but trips to New Jersey’s southern beaches or, say, Pittsburgh may not be possible at all. (The car is not intended, by the way, as a road-trip car-though we are occasionally using it as such to investigate the entire natural-gas-fueling infrastructure-but rather as a commuter car that offers huge environmental and economic benefits. Most users with families would have a second car anyway, and use that for extended trips.)

As a car, the GX is virtually identical to conventional Civics, although there is very little trunk space because of the large, pressurized fuel tank. Its 113hp engine feels slightly anemic in this age of 200hp sedans, but it’s perfectly serviceable as long as you don’t have a fondness for jackrabbit starts at stoplights. From the driver’s seat, my only complaint is that there is no distance-to-empty display near the digital fuel gauge. This is, perhaps, the only car in the world that really needs one-given the fact that if you run out of fuel, you’re dead in the water-and it’s nowhere to be found. Honda tells me that this is because none of the other cars in the Civic lineup offer it, and it’s too expensive to include in a single model. Hopefully, the company will integrate one in future model-years.

Nicole Dyer, Headlines Editor
My brother and I decided to take the GX for a spin up to Bash Bish Falls in Mt. Washington, Massachusetts, a 130-mile trip from New York City. The night before, I flipped through the directory of natural-gas stations searching for filling stations along our route. Of the dozens listed, only two of them were open on weekends: one at LaGuardia Airport and another 90 miles away in Poughkeepsie, New York. Run out of gas in between, and it’d be tow-truck city.

First stop: LaGuardia. The pump at the station wasn’t so different from a traditional one, except that the nozzle delivered pressurized gas instead of liquid fuel, and it made a startling hissing noise while doing it. Total fill: 5.4 gallons. Cost: $13.53. Because the pressure at natural-gas pumps can vary depending on the health of the compressors, we left the station with the tank just 85 percent full. Not ideal, considering that our next fueling option was 90 miles away.

The ride up was smooth and uneventful-the car drives like a regular Civic-but I was hyperwatchful of the digital gas meter on the instrument panel. It’s marked by white bars, which disappear dramatically one by one as the tank empties. By the time we reached the falls, we had a scant four bars remaining. That translates to less than a quarter of a tank, just enough to get us to the next closest station, about 40 miles south in Poughkeepsie, on our way home.

After a day of hiking, it was about 7:30 p.m. before we got back on the road, and I wasn’t happy about the prospect of running out of fuel in Poughkeepsie at night. Lucky for us, our GPS unit (named Kent for his emotionless enunciation of street names) knew a shortcut and proceeded to guide us through a maze of winding backroads. With one bar left, Kent eventually led us to a lone and unlit filling station at the back of parking lot behind a nondescript municipal building. Then came a new set of worries: Would the pump work? Would it accept our credit card? Would anyone find us if we ran out of gas? Was there any salty Asian snack mix left?

Much to our relief, the pump flowed perfectly, and we made it back to the city without the aid of roadside assistance. Bottom line: Honda’s NGV Civic is an economical and environmentally friendly alternative to gas-powered cars, but if you plan to road trip in it, don’t leave home without Kent.

Kris LaManna, Photo Editor
I’ve taken the GX out on two drives so far-one to the Philadelphia area and one to Danbury, Connecticut. I had a very smooth experience with the car. I will say that not seeing exactly how many miles I had left was a bit unnerving, considering that there are only so many filling stations that I had access to. What put me at ease a bit was the fact that I knew exactly where I was headed and was able to figure out the miles beforehand. The car drove great, and having people stop me and ask about it was a unique experience. I had no problems finding or filling the tank but, of course, would love to have more options. All in all, both adventures with the car proved to be enjoyable.