Who would have thought $3-a-gallon gas would be such a fond memory?
Of course, when prices were that low you were thinking how good $2.50 looked, but by now you've probably forgotten the last time you paid so little to fill up, anyway.
For me, it was last week, and, frankly, I overpaid. I overpaid a lot.
While it looks like every other Honda Civic on the road, the $24,590 Civic GX I was testing runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood isn’t much different than one found in a black gold-powered car, but a pressurized fuel system has been installed to deal with gas that is actually in gaseous form.
You would never notice the change from the driver's seat; the GX starts up and runs just like a regular car. It's only when you go to fill the tank that things start to look different, and you will be pleasantly surprised when you do.
First, there is the fueling process. The pumps at CNG stations are similar to the ones we are all used to, but instead of an open nozzle with a grip at the end of the hose, there is a coupling device that clips onto a receptacle on the car, creating an airtight seal.
The design varies a little bit from station to station, but the procedure is pretty much the same. Attach the nozzle, turn a knob to open the gas line and hit the start button on the pump. In as little time as it takes to fill up with a liquid fuel, the carbon fiber reinforced tank in the GX is pressurized to 3,600 psi or 8 gasoline-gallon equivalents (GGE).
Daintier folks like me appreciate how clean everything is. There is no greasy residue on the hose or corrosive liquid dripping on to your car's paint job. If anything happens to go terribly wrong, CNG dissipates into the air rather than pooling on the ground at your feet.
This is good, because when you see how little it costs to fill up, you may faint.
At stations run by Clean Energy in New York, where I filled my test car, the price was $2.98 a gallon. Other companies in the state charge less than $2, and if you live in Oklahoma or Utah, where locally produced CNG gets big breaks from the taxman, you can find it for as little as 86 cents per GGE.
"Finding it" being the operative term.
Since there aren’t too many CNG vehicles on the road, there are only 500 public stations across the country, compared to around 150,000 gasoline stations. Honda is the only original equipment manufacturer currently producing a CNG-powered car for retail sale and builds only about 1,000 GXs a year.
Honda actively markets the GX in New York and California, where a large number of pumps are available, but the model can be purchased in every state except Hawaii. Thomas Magnum will have to continue sleuthing in Robin Master’s Ferrari.
It is the classic chicken-and-egg scenario that plagues every alternative fuel trying to gain a foothold in the marketplace: Energy companies don't want to invest in the infrastructure until there are enough vehicles to sell the product to, and automobile manufacturers don't want to spend a lot of money making and marketing a vehicle that isn't convenient for everyone to own.
The thing about CNG is that there is a way to escape this vicious cycle, and potentially save even more cash in the process.
If your home has a natural gas supply, you can install an appliance called a Phill that is essentially your very own CNG station. Tapping into the gas lines, the device uses a low-power compressor to fill the car's tank at the rate of about half a GGE per hour. Just plug in the car when you get home at night and when you wake up it's ready to go. It's very similar to owning an electric car in that the fueling process is dreadfully slow, but the convenience is hard to argue with.
A Phill isn't cheap; it costs about $4,000, but it qualifies for a $1,000 federal tax credit. Some states offer additional incentives, like New York, which takes another $2,000 off your tax bill. Since you'll be paying less than at the pumps -- $1.40 per GGE in New York -- a Phill can pay for itself in as little as a year if you use it often enough.
Of course the sticker price on the GX is also $6,830 more than you'll pay for a regular Civic, but there are plenty of breaks to be had there, too. Uncle Sam gives you a $4,000 credit for being a good citizen, and some states offer as much as $3,400 more, effectively making it the cheaper car to purchase.
Let's not forget that the Civic is exactly that, a cheap car. Luckily, Honda does cheap well, and in any of its forms the Civic is one of the best. Inside and out the GX is almost identical to the rest of the lineup. It has the same wraparound dashboard with stacked pods for the digital speed readout and tachometer, and the same basic, but comfortable seating.
It also retains the outstanding handling that Civics have been known for as long as they have graced these shores with their presence. Flat through turns, compliant on urban streets, and poised on the highway, few small cars come close to the driving enjoyment provided by the Civic line, even in alternative fuel form.
All is not good, though, and the conversion to natural gas does mean a few compromises have to be made.
First, the large cylindrical CNG tank is installed high behind the rear seats, taking a huge chunk of trunk space with it. The GX is left with 6 cubic feet compared to 12 cubic feet in standard Civic sedans. The manufacturing process also eliminates the speakers from the rear shelf, though the car is still wired up for them if you want to add your own. Fortunately, the two-speaker system in front is as good as a bare minimum of stereo can be expected to be.
Then there is the matter of range. With its standard 5-speed automatic transmission, the GX gets nearly the same MPG rating as a regular Civic, 24 city/36 highway versus 25/36. The problem is that the 8 GGE tank is much smaller than the 13 gallon one in the standard car and in mixed driving will only give you 230 miles on a fill-up.
If you live and work near a station, or own a Phill, that's not a problem for most drivers on a daily basis. On the other hand, if you want to take a long road trip, the choices of destination will be limited, and you will need to plan ahead using a Web site like CNGPrices.com that shows the locations and pump prices for nearly every CNG station across the country.
In Morocco, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, there is a sign that warns: ”52 days to Timbuktu." It makes the point that if you are driving a caravan of camels, you'd better bring everything you need for 52 days, because you are on your own for the duration.
I had a similar experience with the GX when I set out from New York City on a trip to Syracuse, N.Y. to meet up with the owner of a Phill, and got a taste of what the early days of motoring must have been like.
Between the two cities there is one CNG filling station on the outskirts of Binghamton, some 200 miles from where I work in Manhattan. It is a distance within the range of the GX, but just barely. If there were any construction delays, or a backup due to an accident, I knew that I could find myself in big trouble. Worse yet, if something went wrong with the car, a Guinness Book of World's Records tow could be in the cards.
As it turns out, there were no problems along the way and I ended up averaging 40-plus mpg over the course of the trip at a steady 65 mph. I had more than 3 GGE of fuel left in the tank when I filled up, and probably could've made it all the way to Syracuse if I didn't stop. That kind of range won't get the GX across states like Tennessee or Nebraska, where there are no public CNG stations, and I was lucky that Binghamton happened to be on the shortest route to Syracuse. But for day-to-day driving, owning the GX really isn't much of a stretch as long as you aren't in a hurry to get anywhere.
To keep the fuel efficiency the same as the standard Civic, Honda had to dial back on the power quite a bit on the GX. Running on CNG, the engine pumps out a tear-worthy 113 horsepower, compared to 140 hp using gasoline. Nearly 20 percent less. The GX also weighs considerably more, and I clocked a 0-60 mph run at just under 14 seconds.
The bright side? At 65 mph, the Civic GX is just as fast as any Ferrari traveling at 65 mph.
Energy-security types will appreciate that natural gas remains a largely domestic product. According to the American Gas Association, The United States imports only about 16 percent of its supply, and most of that comes from the friendly folks in Canada, smuggled in by all of the comedians and TV journalists they send our way.
It is also a very clean burning fuel, as you know from years of cooking Jiffy Pop on the stove in your home. As a result, the GX is recognized as the least-polluting car with an internal combustion engine, as well as having the smallest carbon footprint.
Touche, Mr. Prius.
If the idea of carrying a canister of compressed explosive gas around makes you nervous, it shouldn’t, at least not too much. CNG is less volatile than gasoline and the tank is designed with a number of safety features to vent it in the event of a collision. It will also take a shot from a .30-caliber bullet without rupturing. A good feature for when you go on “green” hunting trips.
With gasoline prices as high as they are today, everyone loves to talk about all of "those fuel efficient cars they sell overseas, and why can't we get them here?" Well, you can, and they look and drive a lot like the Civic GX. It's up to you if you want to pay $4 a gallon or a buck to drive one.
2008 Honda Civic GX
Base Price: $24,590
As Tested: $25,225
Type: Front-engine, front-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: 1.8-liter CNG-powered 4-cylinder
Power: 113 horsepower, 109 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 24 city/36 hwy
What do you think of the Civic GX?
Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.