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Driving the natural-gas-fueled version of the 2012 Honda Civic brought me back to my high-school chemistry class. As I thought about how Honda derives a miles-per-gallon figure for this car, I considered the physical states of a liquid versus a gas.
That train of thought only explained why the natural gas tanks in the car impinged so much on the trunk space, yet still only carried 8 gallons. The 13.2-gallon tank in the 2012 Honda Civic EX-L used up much less space. As my chemistry teacher explained, a gas takes up more volume than a liquid.
It took a little Web research to find that Gasoline Gallon Equivalent (GGE) is a commonly used measurement for compressed natural gas (CNG). A GGE of CNG contains the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. Being a gas, that GGE of CNG takes up more volume, and means there is maybe room for three grocery bags in the back of the Civic Natural Gas.
Given its smaller fuel capacity, the Civic Natural Gas does not boast the same range as its gasoline counterpart. A Civic EX-L goes an average of 422 miles on a full tank, while the Natural Gas version can only go, on average, 248 miles after its tanks have been topped off.
Add lesser range and trunk space to the fact that CNG filling stations are much, much rarer than gas stations, and the question arises, how does the Civic Natural Gas justify itself?
Not hurting its case is the fact that fuel economy is about the same between the CNG and gasoline Civics. Same amount of energy per gallon, remember?
The most immediate tangible benefit from the Civic Natural Gas is that CNG costs much less than gasoline. A survey of stations around the San Francisco Bay Area, using CNGPrices.com, showed prices ranging from $1.99 to $2.80 per GGE, with $2.09 being the most common price in an area where gasoline is going for over $4.00 per gallon. That means a full tank in the Civic Natural Gas for $16.72.
For those willing to think beyond the pocketbook, CNG produces less pollutants than gasoline. According to a Department of Energy study, the Civic Natural Gas emits 20 to 40 percent less carbon monoxide and 80 percent less particulate matter than an equivalent gasoline-powered car. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Under California's emissions rating system, the Civic Natural Gas qualifies as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle, making it eligible for the car pool lanes.
And the politically minded might want to consider that CNG is a domestic fuel source, so it lessens the pressure to become embroiled in foreign conflict.
The Civic Natural Gas suffers a power hit compared with its liquid-powered brethren. Where the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine in the Civic EX-L produces 140 horsepower, that same engine only generates 110 horsepower in the Civic Natural Gas. Torque likewise goes down from 128 to 106 pound-feet.
That power loss becomes palpable when flooring the accelerator, either to merge on a freeway, pass another car, or through a misguided sense of fun. The Civic Natural Gas is not a fast car, taking its sweet time in the run up to 60 mph. Under this sort of acceleration, it showed a preference for very specific rev ranges, getting a boost after each gear change for a short amount of time.
The five-speed automatic transmission is only remarkable for the three low ranges it offers. There is no manual mode, but I could practically choose gears by rowing through D3, D2, and D1, each of which caps the top gear the transmission can go into. A sixth gear might seem like a good idea, but I found the engine speed maintaining just over 2,000rpm at speeds of 70 mph.
Generally, the Civic Natural Gas' transmission remained unobtrusive, doing its job quietly in the background, which puts it in sync with the car's overall character. This version of the Civic is about as far from the Civic Si as possible. Even during a quick lane change, the Civic Natural Gas felt wobbly. Its cornering characteristics could best be described as sloppy, but as there is no real power to put down for a turn exit, slewing down a winding road is not much of a temptation.
The Civic Natural Gas seems most suited to suburbia, serving as a commute vehicle and errand runner. It feels solid, with a no-hassle, get-in-and-go nature. Filling it up does requires a little research, to find local CNG stations. Sites like the aforementioned CNGPrices.com can help, as can the Department of Energy's alternative fuel stations locator. Road trips will mean advance planning, making sure there are CNG stations on the route.
The car's own navigation system aids the Civic Natural Gas driver in search of some CNG. Honda included a list of CNG stations in the points-of-interest database, and saved it as a favorite category, something owners will certainly appreciate.
I saw this optional navigation system in the previous three 2012 Honda Civics CNET reviewed, and it has not improved with familiarity. Although perfectly functional for route guidance, the maps look rough, with jagged letters for street names. The system shows maps only in a 2D perspective. On the plus side, the route guidance graphics give useful information, such as showing how many lanes are available for a freeway exit. It also incorporates live traffic data, and the maps, stored in flash memory, react quickly to inputs.
Using route guidance, I was annoyed during one trip that the system guided me to a freeway off-ramp, then put me right back on the same freeway at the next on-ramp. That strange little maneuver could be chalked down to the fact I chose the last route among the three alternates the system calculated for me.
The navigation head unit also incorporates the stereo, which offers a good array of digital sources. A USB port in the console supports both iPods and flash drives, but the interface for these two sources on the head unit is very different. Where the system let me browse my iPhone's music library by artist and album, and even showed album art for a currently playing track, the interface for the flash drive was primitive. From this source, it only showed folders and files, failing to organize the MP3 tracks on the drive into a similar music library, as most other cars do these days.
With this generation of Civic, Honda's interface turned bipolar. With or without the navigation option, Civics come with what Honda calls the Intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID). This display shows fuel economy and audio information in the Civic Natural Gas with good, modern graphics. However, Honda did not give its navigation unit a similar graphics treatment, resulting in a very disparate look between the two interfaces. I would like to see some more integrated development here.
Audiophiles will not be impressed by the Civic Natural Gas' sound system, and will be given no options from Honda for improving it. The car comes with a 160-watt, four speaker system, with no upgrades available. The music reproduction is not horrible, although it had a tendency to highlight odd treble sections in a track. Bass is almost nonexistent, and the system begins to distort with the volume up at 75 percent.
The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas' biggest tech win comes from its fuel source, the low cost of natural gas, and its low emissions. But those benefits are mitigated by lower power and lessened range compared with the gasoline-powered Civics. Other running gear in the Civic is average, such as the five-speed automatic, but not cutting-edge.
Nothing about the cabin tech stands out. The navigation system is functional, and the traffic data is helpful, but the system is not much better than a less expensive portable device. The stereo and Bluetooth phone systems do not break any new ground. Honda has not shown a connected car strategy with the Civic, either. Ultimately, the Civic is a mild-mannered, useful little car, but not big on advanced tech.
|Model||2012 Honda Civic|
|Power train||1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, 5-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||27 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||32.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based system with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list integration and voice command|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||160-watt 4-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$28,425|