For the past seven years, the natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX has been named the greenest vehicle on the market by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The Civic GX might next year cede its green crown to the all-electric Nissan LEAF or the plug-in Chevy Volt. Nonetheless, Honda is planning to increase production of the GX—the only mass-market compressed natural gas vehicle on the market.
“With the activity in the environmental vehicle space, we’re anticipating growth in sales of CNG vehicles, not only in California but nationwide,” said Elmer Hardey, Honda’s senior manager of alternative vehicles, in an interview with HybridCars.com.
“We’re considering doubling sales in the next two- to three-year horizon,” Hardey said. Last year, Honda sold less than 2,000 Civic GXs—so a doubling is still a modest increase in production. The Civic GX will also be offered with nicer amenities, such as a navigation system and premium stereo package. Honda is completely redesigning the Civic for the 2012 model year.
There are several factors that keep Compressed Natural Gas vehicles in a small niche, most notably limited access to CNG fueling stations. Hardey confirmed that a home-refueling option is still available to GX drivers. FuelMaker, the maker of the Phill CNG-refueling device, was acquired by Fuel Systems Solutions in 2008. The product is now called the BRC Fuel Maker, which sells for about $4,500, minus a $2,000 tax credit.
From an economic perspective, many consumer question the $25,000 price tag for the Civic GX, when the less expensive EX premium model provides nicer features and better performance. Yet, the government perks—such as a $4,000 tax credit and solo-driving access to carpool lanes in several states—could motivate a few buyers. In addition, CNG is less expensive than gas or diesel—by as much as a dollar or two compared to the equivalent per-gallon price.
EV vs. CNG
Hardey believes that interest in CNG home-refueling devices have been stimulated by the electric vehicle market. “People are beginning to consider their needs and alternatives,” Hardey said.
“If a customer wants to move away from petroleum, then CNG and electric vehicles are a good choice. Obviously, battery electric vehicles are a further choice away from petroleum than a hybrid or plug-in hybrid,” Hardey said. “CNG is a fossil fuel, but it becomes an energy security issue. Maybe you want to move away from oil and use a US-based resource. Natural gas fits that need very effectively.”
Even with a doubling of sales, the Honda Civic GX is likely to remain a very niche vehicle. On the other hand, there’s tremendous momentum building for plug-in cars—and Honda realizes that they can’t be left out of the market. Earlier this year, Honda announced future production of an all-electric subcompact city car, as well as a larger plug-in hybrid. In addition, the company is continuing to emphasize hybrid gas-electric cars as a fuel-efficient strategy.
“The plug-in hybrid will be the size of the Honda Accord or larger,” Hardey said. There’s no chance that Honda will develop a new dedicated model that runs on CNG. On the other hand, according to Hardey, Honda will start its electric and plug-in hybrid program with existing platforms, and then “quickly move to dedicated vehicles.” That speaks volumes about the future direction of CNG versus EV in the new green car landscape.