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2012 Honda Civic GX: Unsung green hero

Among the electric, hybrid, and fuel cell cars being touted as the saviors of the planet, Honda's little natural-gas-powered Civic has quietly been running along, saving its owners money at the pump and producing drastically reduced amounts of CO2.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Electric and hybrid cars grab all the headlines, but Honda's natural gas-powered Civic has been quietly running along, reducing CO2 emissions since 1998.

Of Honda's line of 2012 Civics, people are most likely to be unfamiliar with the Natural Gas version. The public in general is not aware that natural gas can power cars, in addition to heating houses and cooking food. Nor is the average man on the street likely to know that a gallon of natural gas is two-thirds (or less) the cost of a gallon of gasoline. That natural gas emits 30 percent less CO2 than gasoline is another little-known fact.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
The Natural Gas badge offers one clue to this car's fuel. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

To spread some knowledge, Honda put me behind the wheel of its 2012 Civic Natural Gas for a drive that included city traffic, freeway merging, and some mountain twisties. Beyond the Natural Gas badge and CNG sticker on the rear, the exterior and interior of the car offered little clue to its fuel source. In many ways, it was like the Civic EX-L CNET previously reviewed, down to the navigation system and instrument cluster.

Just like in any other 2012 Civic, I pulled the five-speed automatic's shifter down to Drive and the car began to roll forward. Pushing the accelerator, I found the fact that natural gas was running from a tank in the back through a compressor and a special set of injectors into the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine instead of gasoline made little difference.

Lacking the energy density of gasoline, natural gas creates less power in the Civic. This car only produces 110 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque, a bit less than the 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque from the gasoline Civic.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
The 1.8-liter engine is similar to that in other Civics, but it uses a different injection system. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

That power reduction was not terribly noticeable in city driving. Launching from a stop light, I could only go as fast as the car in front of me. As the road opened up into a more suburban area, the Civic Natural Gas picked up speed reasonably, although the 0 to 60 mph time must be about a second or so off the standard Civic.

Driving it back-to-back over the same ground as a gasoline Civic, the natural gas version felt a bit smoother, which might have been due to the less violent explosions in the cylinders.

The 2012 Civic Natural Gas handled the freeway merge without a problem, and kept up with 60 mph traffic. Heading up a hill on a mountain road, it easily maintained 40 mph. Just like with the gasoline-powered Civic, I had the transmission's low ranges available to maximize power.

The upshot of the drive was that the Civic Natural Gas performed competently, with little difference from the standard Civic. But this car will not work for everyone.

Hal Snyder, a spokesman for the natural gas industry, says, "At current levels of usage, the U.S. has a 120-year supply of natural gas." And that's just what has been discovered. Natural gas is also a U.S.-produced fuel, so does not need to be imported. The natural gas industry is also developing biogas, by producing natural gas from waste. Biogas has the advantage of being renewable and carbon-neutral, only releasing CO2 into the atmosphere that would have been released anyway from waste decomposition.

However, compressed natural gas (CNG) filling stations are not all that common. California offers the most, at 247, while New York comes in second, at 101 stations. But about half the states have numbers of CNG stations in the single digits, and some have none at all. Surprisingly, Utah and Oklahoma have the third and fourth most stations, due to local energy companies. An online map at MapMuse shows the locations of CNG stations.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
The trunk space takes a serious hit to accommodate the natural gas tank. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

One solution to this lack of filling options is a home station. Houses that use natural gas for heating can get a home filling station installed. Because of the lower pressure of household natural gas, these stations require hours to fill up the Civic's tank, whereas a commercial station uses high-pressure gas to accomplish a fill-up in minutes.

The Civic's natural gas tank is also larger than a gasoline tank, halving the trunk room. It will still fit a few bags of groceries, but forget stowing a large set of luggage.

Although the tank is larger, it only holds the equivalent of 8 gallons of gasoline, and that restricts range. Honda gives a maximum range for the Civic Natural Gas of 248 miles, and that is when the tank is filled at 3,600 PSI. Another common pressure for CNG filling stations is 3,000 PSI, which means reduced range.

The Civic Natural Gas' advantages in terms of lower running cost and reduced CO2 emissions are pretty clear. But there are some serious disadvantages that will make the car unsuitable for many.