The price of clean fuel is angst.
Other than that, it's pretty cheap.
The No. 1 problem with the 2009 Honda Civic GX, the only natural gas burning compact car on sale today to the public, is it uses natural gas.
Every time I started to enjoy the car, I would take a peek at the white fuel gauge and see it slowly ticking toward empty. My heart would race and this sick feeling would begin to overwhelm me. All I could hear was the voice of the man who dropped off the Civic for my week-long test reverberating through my head, "Yeah, we've had to tow it to the station a couple of times."
The last thing I wanted was to be the next person to park the Civic GX on the side of the road.
See, only a handful of stations sell compressed natural gas. When Honda hands over the test car, it provides a list of 14 stations in Michigan. If I'm on E in Muskegon, I can stop at the Wesco Station there and fill up.
Driving the Civic GX is like playing chess against an internal combustion engine. You have to think 30 miles ahead. You can't just drive wherever, whenever without knowing where the Windmill Truck Stop is in Dimondale or the right Meijer in Ann Arbor.
That's one of the drawbacks of a new alternative fuel vehicle: Infrastructure. There is no system in place. But at least with natural gas, anyone with a gas line to their house could install a pump in the garage. It's convenient, but costly, as much as $5,000 to install a pump, and then you get pleasure of pumping your own fuel.
But natural gas costs about 30 percent less at the pump than regular unleaded (and even less with a home pump). It burns very clean, producing 75 percent fewer smog-forming pollutants, and it comes with loads of government incentives and tax breaks.
It also makes the Civic the most versatile lineup around; no other car comes in natural gas, hybrid and regular gas versions.
Boringly normal ride
Most of the Michigan stations carrying natural gas are in Metro Detroit, so I probably shouldn't have worried as much as I did.
Cruising around Detroit, I kept thinking about how I might be able to siphon propane from a Blue Rhino can if my Civic GX ran out of juice. But propane and natural gas are not the same, and I have no desire to become the punch line in a Jeff Foxworthy routine.
But that's what happens when you drive something different; you expect the unexpected. Really, the Civic GX was boringly normal on the road.
I wanted something gee whiz to happen. This is the future, or at least some variation of it. But the Civic GX starts with a regular key, like a normal car; I wanted it to fire up like my gas grill, which requires me to push a button, hold my breath and I wait for the click, click, click and then a familiar whoosh.
Even filling the car was uneventful. Anyone can do it. Just connect the nozzle from the pump to the car, pull down a small lever so it locks in place and wait a minute or so. Smoking is discouraged.
Other than the "Natural Gas Vehicle" decal on the sides, no one would be the wiser that you're driving a natural gas vehicle.
For the Civic aficionado, Honda did make a few changes to the 2009 model. The automaker added a new front bumper, changed the grille and made some minor changes to the rear end. But it still has the classic Civic lines and wedge-like profile.
The engine sounds a little rough during a cold starts, but it warmed right up and chugged along at highway speeds with ease. The 113-horsepower, 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine seemed perfectly normal. It doesn't blow you away, but it's not designed to do that. It's configured to take you more than 250 miles on the natural gas equivalent of 8 gallons of gas.
All things equal, the Civic GX gets 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway in its GGE (gasoline-gallon equivalent). The trick is to determine how much city driving you're doing and how much highway time your tank is doing. The easiest way to handle this dilemma is to estimate 220 miles on a single tank of fuel.
The rest of the underpinnings of the Civic GX are purely Civic. It has tight steering and a comfortable ride. There's some road noise but it's still fun.
Even during December's heaviest snow day, I drove the GX around with few problems. The front-wheel drive tires slipped a little, but the car stayed on the road and got me home safely.
The GX's two-tier instrument panel is just as nice as it is in any other Civic. The digital speedometer mounted above the analogue tachometer feels futuristic and natural. The seats are comfortable and there are 42.2 inches of legroom in the front and 34.6 inches in the second row.
Additional features include: a keyless entry; a 160-watt stereo, which includes an auxiliary jack to connect your personal music device; and the typical amenities expected in a compact car. Nothing blows you away, but nothing disappoints either. The only thing my test car needed was a navigation system with every natural gas station pre-programmed in it -- just in case.
Modest, reliable and pricey
That's the Civic's secret: it's a modest compact car with good handling. There's nothing too flashy and nothing that leaves you upset. The GX is just a Civic with a pressurized natural gas tank instead of a regular one. I never felt like I was riding around in the next Hindenburg, waiting to be T-boned by an SUV.
The one problem with the Civic GX is its $25,000 price tag, which makes it one of the most expensive Civics around.
Even the gas-electric hybrid Civic, which gets better gas mileage, has a starting sticker price lower than the natural gas version. Some of this is tied to the additional plumbing needed to run an engine under high pressure. Other expenses come from the carbon fiber fuel tank and other materials used to bolster the vehicle.
At current gas prices, it might be difficult to justify the GX's additional costs. Regular gas is cheap so a person won't see big savings. But most people, including me, think gas is only going to get more expensive.
And there are other perks money can't buy. Many states allow natural gas vehicles to use High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with only one person inside the cabin. It's a greener machine than most so environmentalists won't throw sticks and berries at you.
There are a number of tax incentives tied to the Civic GX. There's a federal tax credit that can hit $4,000 and many states offer additional incentives to drive a natural gas-powered vehicle. So there's some fuzzy math involved with buying this vehicle.
The Civic GX is nearly the perfect commuting machine for someone who needs a reliable ride every day. Drive to work, drive home and hook up to the home filling station. That should placate the angst.
There's nothing to fear, it's just a Civic, one of the best selling cars in America -- only cleaner.
Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exterior: Good. Classic Civic wedge shape.
Interior: Good. Comfortable and futuristic instrument panel. Lots of space for a compact.
Performance: Good. Engine provides more than enough pep for the highway and around town driving.
Safety: Good. Full complement of air bags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control.
Pros: Economical to operate with lots of room inside.
Cons: Finding a filling station.
**** Excellent; *** Good; ** Fair; * Poor
Phill is the first appliance that allows you to fill your natural gas car at home.
Installation: $1,000 (estimated)
Leasing Phill is also an option.
Perks of a natural gas vehicle:
HOV lane usage, when authorized
Better for the environment
Many cities offer reduced or free parking
Home fueling billed on natural gas bill.