Though the 2012 Honda Civic is a decent car overall, I don't think the natural gas version is a worthwhile purchase because it forces too many compromises. For one, the gas tank uses up nearly all the trunk space -- just six cubic feet of space remain, compared to 12.5 cubic feet in a regular Civic sedan. In addition, the Civic Natural Gas is very slow because it weighs between 53 and 247 pounds more than other Civic sedans, yet the 1.8-liter engine produces only 110 hp, compared to 140 hp in gasoline-fed models.
The other issue is that fueling the Civic is a real chore. Very few gas stations serve CNG, and even after I found one that did, I was flummoxed by the procedure. The Civic's user manual has pictures showing how to lock the CNG nose onto the car's nozzle, but no matter what I did, I couldn't get the hose to fit securely. The pump at a local Meijer gas station featured numerous scary warnings about carefully locking the filler to the car nozzle lest they allow flammable gas leaks or separate "with great force." The attendants told me they also had no idea how to operate the pump, noting that it belonged not to Meijer but to local utility provider DTE Energy. Unsure of what to do, I decided to wimp out and go home without fueling the car. I like to think I'm fairly mechanically apt, so it was frustrating that I couldn't work out how to safely refuel the Honda.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
Contrary to all the warnings and hyperbole, fueling the Civic NG isn't that hard, especially once you read the owner's manual. The filler nozzle is certainly different from what most drivers are used to, but you simply put the locking handle at the 3-o'clock position, attach it on the tank's nipple (located within the fuel filler door), and rotate until it attaches. Turn the pump on, and it'll inflate the tank until the system pressure reaches either 3000 or 3600 PSI. A complete fill takes no longer than a typical tank of gasoline; once it's done, you shut the pump off, unlock the nozzle (it may jump backwards slightly), and you're good to go.
Finding a CNG station, however, may not be as easy. If you think the electric car charging network is small, the CNG infrastructure is microscopic, especially in Michigan. There are at least 219 240-volt chargers available in Michigan, and most are scattered throughout a sizable portion of the Lower Peninsula. In contrast, there are only 13 CNG fueling stations open to the public in Michigan (I actually visited them all this past weekend), and they're mostly centered in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids. Home refueling is potentially an option, although home compressors run painfully slow, giving roughly one gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) every hour. Seeing as the Civic's tank holds about 8 GGE at 3600 psi, that's a sizable wait if you arrive home with a near-empty tank.
Yes, the tree huggers will celebrate CNG's clean-burning attributes, but most of the buzz surrounding CNG is that the fuel is cheaper to buy than gasoline. In Michigan, that's currently true: at DTE-owned pumps (12 of the 13 available), it runs you about $2.649 for a GGE. The average price of a gallon of gasoline in our state is currently averaging about $3.95 a gallon, so you're feasibly saving $1.30 or so for the same amount of energy. (Home fueling could be even cheaper; I could pump 1 GGE for about 33 cents before tax, although the pump itself is reportedly close to $4000-5000 installed.)
I made a 243.9-mile trek the past weekend on a full tank of CNG, and averaged about 34 mpg. Refilling in Detroit cost me $17.25, meaning my fuel cost works out to about 7 cents per mile. That's better than what a comparable Civic EX would run you, assuming you average the EPA's combined 32 mpg figure, and that you filled up close to where I did, where prices were $3.87 a gallon. If so, that same trek would have cost me about 12 cents a mile.
Obviously, as the price of gasoline increases, CNG looks attractive from a price perspective, but not if you're trying to amortize costs without a tax or dealer incentive. The Civic Natural Gas runs about $5000 more than an equivalent Civic EX, so if this drive cycle were representative of most of my driving, there's only about a 4-cent-per-mile difference between the two fuels. As such, I'd need to rack up about 125,000 miles before recouping the Civic NG's premium.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
If I hadn't seen the badge on the rear of the Civic CNG designating it as a natural gas vehicle, I wouldn't have been the wiser. It drives pretty much the same as the standard Civic, which is to say really well if a bit uninspiring. It feels slower than the base gasoline Civic but merging and passing are still adequate.
Like any alternative-fuel vehicle, it requires some compromises and a larger cash investment up front but unlike its hybrid counterparts the Civic CNG is emissions-free. In this way, it's similar to an electric vehicle, but it differs from cars such as the Nissan Leaf and the new Mitsubishi i because it doesn't have such a short driving range. The only negative for owners could be having to go out of their way to fill up, as natural gas refueling stations are certainly harder to come by than their gasoline counterparts.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I must say that I found Honda's oddball side projects a lot more charming when the Civic was the best car in its segment. It's still admirable that Honda commits to forward-looking powertrains, and as others have noted, this one is executed with the polish we've come to expect of this company's engineers. The CNG basically feels, sounds, and drives like a regular Civic, albeit a rather slow one. And yet, I can't help but wonder if the money spent developing this fine technology could have gone to, say, more expensive materials for the dashboard. That may sound shallow considering that natural gas could play a role in gaining energy independence (from what I understand it's a mixed bag environmentally as much of the stuff is locked in oil shale) but Honda is a small company that needs to focus its limited resources.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that compressed natural gas vehicles - at least those for consumer, rather than fleet, use - aren't ever going to make much of a dent in the U.S. vehicle market. The Honda Civic CNG has now been on sale in the United States since 1998, and it remains the only passenger car sold here that runs on compressed natural gas. Part of the problem is that the infrastructure just isn't there for the vast majority of Americans (at least those outside of California and New York). Witness the fact that there are only thirteen stations in the entire state of Michigan where the public can refuel a CNG vehicle. It's admirable that Honda keeps offering the Civic CNG, a car that's built in America and relies on American supplies of natural gas, but until there is a reliable, widespread infrastructure to support it and a larger, more well-informed consumer base creating more demand, it will remain a very niche vehicle.
As for driving the Civic CNG, you'd probably never know it doesn't run on gasoline unless someone told you. It's not overly refined or very fast, but it's a competent car that would work well as someone's only car, if only they were assured that there was a place to refuel wherever they went.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The natural gas aspect of the car is nowhere evident when you're driving, and it's interesting and kinda cool that Honda offers this alternative-fuel version of the Civic, but I wish they'd taken the resources they devoted to homologating this particular trim level and instead devoted them to making the basic Civic a more exciting vehicle.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor