Pros: Extremely efficient with clean emissions; don't have to sacrifice power or comfort
Cons: Doesn't stand out from conventional Civics; fuel can be hard to get
For 2012, customers have more variations of the Civic to choose from than ever before. In fact there are five altogether: The Civic, Civic HF or "high efficiency," Civic Hybrid, Civic Si, and Civic Natural Gas (NG).
The Civic Natural Gas is one of the newest additions to the Civic lineup. Formerly known as the Civic GX, it was previously only available in four markets: California, New York, Utah and Oklahoma. For 2012, Honda expanded the sale of the Civic NG to 200 dealers in 35 states. Currently the Civic NG is the only dedicated natural gas-powered passenger vehicle manufactured and sold in the US.
Unlike other variations on the Civic, like the HF, the Civic NG hasn't received many distinguishing features that would set it apart from the rest of the lineup. It features a sleek, raked windshield, a sweeping roofline, and a body design Honda calls "one-motion."
Some of the most interesting exterior features on the Civic NG are the ones that customers will never see. Honda gave the Civic NG a flat underbody and aerodynamic strakes (essentially a series of small fins) in front of the tires to help reduce wind resistance. Both are rather clever and features often found on airplanes. It's just too bad they can't be visually appreciated.
Comfort & Utility
The best way to describe the Civic NG is interior to say that it's "regular." We mean that in the best possible way. All too often automakers get caught up in overdesigning green car interiors, packing them with technological gadgets, funky materials and superfluous buttons. While the Civic NG is available with a navigation system, it's uncomplicated and easy to figure out. Honda also includes an exclusive database of publically accessible natural gas stations across the U.S.
While the Civic NG isn't a very big car, the interior doesn't feel small. Even tall drivers will find it roomy and comfortable in every direction: truly rare in a smaller, fuel-efficient vehicle. Although it might use a bit too much gray, the interior is simple and serves its purpose. Controls are laid out in a highly intuitive fashion. Everything appears to be robust and well built. It's the kind of sturdy interior that was common in vehicles of yesteryear.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Under the hood of the Civic NG is Honda's 1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that has been specially modified to burn natural gas. These changes include special fuel injectors and a higher compression ratio than the standard gasoline-burning version. The EPA estimates the Civic NG will achieve 27 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway, with a combined fuel economy rating of 31 mpg. These fuel economy numbers are a 10.7-percent increase over the last natural gas model and a big improvement over the gasoline version.
What's more, this natural gas-powered 4-cylinder is the cleanest internal combustion engine the EPA has ever tested. This is a huge accomplishment for Honda and one that deserves repeating. The engine is so clean it produces virtually zero smog-forming emissions.
Beyond the Civic NG's clean-burning engine, the drive is fairly effortless. Braking is forgiving but firm. The steering is light but exact. The drive train barely makes noise. And though it's a very clean vehicle, it's got the power to get up and go if you need it. If you didn't know it was a natural gas-powered compact sedan, you'd never be the wiser. Unlike other eco-friendly cars, owners don't need to sacrifice drivability or comfort with the Civic NG.
It's clear the Civic NG is special. It's extremely clean and environmentally friendly. It's well built. And at $26,155, it's affordable. It does, however, have one major fault: the availability of fuel.
If you're a Civic NG owner in Seattle, Washington, operating your Civic NG is easy with five public fueling stations at your disposal. At these stations, the natural gas is heavily pressurized and filling the tank of the NG takes only one or two minutes - faster than a regular gas pump. With a range of around 275 miles per tank, you could drive your Civic NG virtually worry-free in Seattle.
But if you lived 250 miles south, in Portland, Oregon, Civic NG ownership takes on a whole new challenge. Portland, unlike Seattle, has no public natural gas stations. This means you'll need to have the natural gas company install a filler station in your garage, which will run you around $3,000. Fueling problem solved, right? Wrong. The pressure of the natural gas running from your house is a fraction of what it is at public filling stations. So the filling process that takes two minutes in Seattle will take seven hours at your home in Portland.
This same story is replicated in a smattering of cities all over the U.S. Some customers will have no problems filling their Civic NG; others will have to adjust their lives in a major way to accommodate. Natural gas is very cheap compared with gasoline but how much gasoline would the $3,000 for your home natural gas station buy you? The answer: nearly three years worth.
If you're unlucky enough to live in a city without a public natural gas fueling infrastructure, the Civic NG takes on the ownership properties of an electric vehicle. Average home charging time in the Nissan Leaf, for example, is also around seven hours. But the Civic NG's range is nearly three times longer than the Leaf. That puts the Civic NG somewhere between a hybrid and an electric vehicle in terms of effort versus eco-friendliness.
For those without the infrastructure, the Civic NG will have to be a labor of love. For the rest of us, however, it's a no-brainer. The Civic NG is the epitome of what every green car wants to be: environmentally friendly and cheap. We love it and hope to see more like it soon.