LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.
IT looks as bland as mashed bananas and it won't run circles around a Prius. Yet the Honda Civic GX may be the most provocative car to ply California's polluted, congested freeways this year.
Neither a sophisticated hybrid nor a fuel cell vehicle designed for hydrogen highways of the future, the Civic GX doesn't run on canola oil, turkey renderings, subatomic particles or even electricity. Instead, it makes its idosyncratic way on cheap, clean-burning, abundant natural gas.
You may never have heard of the GX, though it wasn't born yesterday. Honda has sold about 7,000 natural gas Civics since 1997, the vast majority to fleet operators like utilities and municipal governments. Others have dabbled with natural gas cars; Ford has abandoned its American program, though Chrysler and General Motors continue to offer a few trucks to fleet customers.
Honda, however, demonstrated its expanded commitment last spring by quietly offering 310 Civic GX's to Californians. Honda is also providing a device that fuels the cars at home by tapping into the natural gas line that feeds the furnace or kitchen stove.
The device, called the Phill, permits overnight refueling in one's own garage, offering an alternative to the natural gas pumps sprinkled around many urban areas.
Why would anyone want a Civic GX? For starters, it is the cleanest internal-combustion car ever tested by the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an environmental advocacy group, calls it the greenest car in America.
About 95 percent of natural gas is methane, a simple molecule consisting of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. When burned, natural gas produces little more than carbon dioxide and water vapor.
Aside from emitting less smog-causing compounds than a gasoline Civic, Honda says the GX produces 20 to 25 percent less of emissions linked to global warming, like carbon dioxide. Only a few highly efficient hybrid cars, like the Civic Hybrid, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, have greenhouse gas numbers on par with the GX's.
Also, with gasoline selling for $3 and up in some areas, natural gas is a relative bargain despite price rises to residential customers in recent years. It still costs less than $2 at the pump for the equivalent of a gallon of gas, and $1.27 per equivalent gallon when filled at home here in Orange County.
Part of the savings is tax-related; currently, neither federal nor state highway taxes are collected on natural gas pumped at home. (The taxes are included in the pump price.)
There are more advantages. Compared with gasoline, natural gas is far cleaner and cheaper to refine and transport. Nor are supplies controlled by Middle Eastern sheiks: although imports are rising, about 98 percent of American consumption comes from North America.
Here in freeway-laced Southern California, stickers on the dowdy sedan confer a V.I.P. privilege: access to a network of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes - intended to encourage car-pooling - even if the driver is alone. The benefits quickly became clear: as traffic crawled on regular lanes of the 405 freeway, my 100-horsepower Honda was one of the fastest cars on the road.
While sales to individuals are quite limited, Honda plans to bring the GX to the East Coast - it hasn't announced which states - next year.
At $22,310, the GX is more expensive than the outwardly identical $17,210 Civic LX, though buyers qualify for a $2,000 federal tax deduction and often for state incentives as well. The new federal energy bill sweetens the deal next year by offering a tax credit equal to 80 percent of the additional cost of the natural gas powertrain, or about $3,600 for the GX.
Honda plans to continue offering a natural gas GX when its redesigned line of Civics goes on sale for 2006.
The GX is built alongside other Civics in Marysville, Ohio, and is similarly equipped. My test car had four-wheel antilock brakes, front and side air bags, air-conditioning, remote locking, power windows, cruise control and an entirely adequate CD player (though it lacked a jack for an iPod or MP3 player).
Even under the hood, the GX appears similar to its gasoline counterpart. The four-cylinder engine displaces 1.7 liters and generates 100 horsepower and 98 pound-feet of torque, compared with 115 and 110 for the gasoline Civic LX. The GX carries a federal gas-equivalency estimate of 30 m.p.g. in town and 34 on the highway, compared with 29/38 for the gasoline Civic LX. But with a smaller tank, the GX can go no more than 250 miles between refuelings.
The clean-air Honda makes good use of its limited power with the help of a nifty continuously variable transmission. This belt-and-pulley wonder constantly adjusts for needed power somewhat like a bicycle derailleur; with no gears, it never downshifts. Wailing up the long grade of the San Joaquin Toll Road in Orange County, the GX maintained 80 m.p.h. while remaining below the redline of the tachometer.
In terms of emissions, the GX is classified as an AT-PZEV, shorthand for "advanced technology-partial zero emissions vehicle." In practical terms, the same attributes that make natural gas safe to burn in your home mean the GX emits 87 percent less carbon monoxide and 25 percent less greenhouse-gas emissions than a gasoline Civic.
In an effort to encourage purchases of natural gas vehicles, and to expand the infrastructure that supports them, Los Angeles and several other California cities provide free parking. By allowing access to the car-pool lanes, at least through 2007, the state has conferred a privilege that until now was denied even to hybrid cars without at least one passenger, though a limited number of high-mileage hybrids will gain access under a new state rule.
I put the lane exemption to the test after filling the GX at a Clean Energy station in Irvine, nine miles from my home. The station, at the city's fleet maintanence yard, has a 24-hour pump that accepts credit cards. After gassing up, I headed down Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush.
To drive solo in the carpool lane is like sampling forbidden fruit - and it gets you where you are going much faster. Outside Irvine, a Prius passed in the fast lane to my right. A couple miles south, as regular traffic backed up, I passed the Prius doing 60.
Assuming a station is nearby, filling a natural gas car is simple: you insert a credit card and follow the instructions on a video screen. After acknowledging that you understand how to turn a knob and attach the nozzle, you're given a two-digit identification number that lets you skip the video.
Under the filler door, instead of the familiar receptacle for a gasoline nozzle, there is a small self-sealing fitting for natural gas. When the natural gas starts flowing, it's noisier than a gasoline pump, but fills the tank to 3,000 or 3,600 pounds per square inch (depending on the pump) in roughly the time it takes to fill a tank with gasoline.
The GX's trunk is smaller than you expect, because its eight-gallon fuel tank - wrapped in carbon fiber - is situated between the back seat and the trunk. Honda says the tank is much stronger and safer than a gasoline tank, as demonstrated by testing and several real-world accidents.
While I was filling the GX, two City of Irvine vehicles made use of the pump, and a pair of Civic GX's pulled up as well. The first was a white 2001 model driven by Darrin McClure, a 40-year-old software programmer and surfer who commutes 20 miles from San Clemente to Irvine every day. Mr. McClure says he flies past cars idling on Interstate 5. "The car's awesome," he said. "It's so clean that you could park it idling in your living room overnight."
An early adopter of Phill was Jeff Church, a 49-year-old United Airlines pilot who uses a 2003 GX for his 50-mile commute to the airport from his home in San Dimas. Mr. Church, who said he had eagerly volunteered to test the system, offered to let me try fueling my Civic in his garage.
The unit turned out to be a three-foot-high appliance hung from a wall. Fueling the GX was a simple matter of extending the coiled hose, snapping the nozzle onto the fuel input and pushing a start button.
I reluctantly returned my GX after 270 enlightening miles. Honda estimates that fuel for a gasoline Civic costs 8.8 cents a mile. I figured the GX's expense at 5.8 cents a mile when fueling at a Clean Energy station, but only about 3 cents a mile if I were filling up at home, not including the lease or installation costs. With those numbers, anyone would breathe easier.