About a month ago my wife and I decided to look for a more economical replacement to my 2007 Chevrolet Impala. During our search, I began discussing cars with some coworkers, including Energy Editor Adam Wilmoth.
Adam bought a compressed natural gas-powered Honda Civic earlier this year and wrote about his impressions. After re-reading his thoughts, I began picking his brain on the topic. In the end, he basically convinced me that a CNG vehicle should be on the shortlist. Needless to say, my wife and I ended up buying a Honda Civic GX, which is the CNG model, about a month ago.
Here are three things I’ve learned from owning my first CNG vehicle.
3. You have to spend some extra money to save some money (in the long run)
Let’s face it: People buy CNG vehicles and have CNG pumps installed in their garages for the primary reason of saving money. Yeah, helping the environment is great and all, but if it wasn’t economical in the slightest then no one would adopt the technology and fuel.
But in order to save some money, you’ll need to spend some extra money at the start.
Look at the CNG-powered Honda Civic, for example: A 2012 Honda Civic GX (the CNG model) has a starting MSRP of $26,305, compared to the base, gas-powered 2013 Honda Civix LX at $18,165. That’s a huge difference in price, but if you’re a serious commuter, then you would break even in as little as a couple of years. Of course buying used is usually a great option as to retain greater vehicle value over the long haul, but even a used GX could cost as much as a brand new LX.
However, consider that it’s much more than just fuel cost that saves you money when you own a CNG vehicle. Because the fuel is cleaner, it causes less strain on the components the fuel system directly interacts with. Thus, oil changes are less frequent (suggested every 10,000 to 15,000 miles), and overall vehicle maintenance could potentially be cheaper, too.
The initial savings are apparent the first time you top off the tank. I commute from Norman to north Oklahoma City every weekday, and when I was driving the Impala, I was dropping $200 to $250 a month on gas alone. Going CNG saves me as much as $210 a month, since weekly fillups for the GX rarely top $8. I’m also getting much better gas mileage with the Civic, which also helps (36 MPG compared to the Impala’s 24ish). Doing quick math, my wife and I are going from spending $3,000 a year on fuel to about $390. In about three years, the price difference for the GX is pretty much covered.
Edit: As readers have pointed out, there are incentives in the form of rebates and tax credits for going CNG. The state of Oklahoma offers these tax incentives, and the federal government offers these incentives.
Also, in Oklahoma, Oklahoma Natural Gas offers a $1,000 rebate for the purchase of a CNG vehicle, though the rebate availability hinges on the availability of funds. I've personally submitted my paperwork for the rebate, so we'll see how long it takes to get to me.
Edit: I spoke with Michele Williams, fleet manager and alternative fuels specialist for Don Carlton Honda in Tulsa, who clarified some things about my GX to LX model and price comparison. Williams pointed out that it's more fair to compare the GX to the EX, which has an MSRP of $20,655. The reason this comparison is more fair is because both models come equipped with alloy wheels and security system. The difference in price is roughly $7,000.
When the incentives and rebates are applied, the cost difference between a gas-powered and CNG-powered vehicle shrinks considerably. Still, the initial up-front costs remain, which might turn off some car buyers.
2. Getting where you need to go can be iffy (but plan ahead and you’ll be OK)
Driving a CNG vehicle doesn’t afford you the comforts of knowing there’s a fueling station at every exit on our nation’s Interstate system. It also doesn’t afford you the comfort of being able to carry extra fuel via cans, since nothing of the sort exists for CNG vehicles (yet). But like any road trip: If you plan it out well, you can get to (almost) anywhere you might want to go.
I say almost because there are some parts of the nation that don’t have a single CNG station, like much of the area north of Kansas, and east of the Dakotas. There are also pockets of CNG-less areas in the southwest and southeast, though taking alternate routes to your destination would give you more fueling options.
Thankfully, there are websites out there to help you plan your CNG-powered trip. Like the Alternative Fuels Data Center and CNG Now. For those with smartphones, the CNG Fuel Finder app is a must for a long-distance drive. Go ahead and play around with one of the maps in the embed below to see where active CNG stations are located:
1. Going CNG means giving up some things (which shouldn’t be a deal breaker)
Yeah, that’s the trunk of a Civic GX. The CNG tank takes up most of the space, and it’s just one of the minor things you’ll have to give up if you go with a CNG vehicle. Other concessions include: small tank capacity (the Civic’s tank holds the equivalent of eight gallons), powerful engines (unless you go bifuel, like a lot of work pickups are) and stereo speakers (since the Civic’s trunk is mostly the tank, speakers can’t be installed in the rear of the car).
To me, and most any other commuter, those things aren’t deal breakers. Since it’s just my wife and I, we don’t have the need for a large trunk. The smaller tank size doesn’t impact me much since I’m getting an average of 36 MPG. I don’t feel the need for speed, so a powerful engine isn’t a priority. And, though I love listening to music on my commute, I’ve found the two front speakers are adequate for average listening.
Another, more serious give-up you have to consider is CNG-powered vehicles are limited in make and model. Honda has the Civic. Chevrolet and Ford have some trucks and vans available. Annnnnnnnd that’s about it. Still, you can drop
a couple thousand bucks about $10,000 and get most any vehicle converted to CNG. So, if you really love your Mazda or Benz, but want to go CNG, consider a (pricey) conversion.
There are two other things to consider when weighing the purchase of a CNG-powered vehicle: The tank must be inspected by a certified technician every three years, and tanks have a shelf life of 15 to 20 years. I spoke with a technician at Fowler Honda in Norman who said an inspection costs $115 and takes about 90 minutes to perform. He couldn’t quote me on the tank replacement, citing that they’ve not had to replace one yet. Googling about, it seems the cost of a tank replacement in 2013 dollars is between $2,000 and $4,000. But by the time my 2010 Civic will need a new tank (in 2025), I imagine the cost to replace it will have dropped a considerable amount due to the advancement in technology.
It’s true that a CNG-powered vehicle won’t be for everyone, but for a 20-something married couple with no kids, it’s a great option to have. The things we had to give up don’t bother us at all, and the benefits we gain (mostly monetary) will more than make up for any heartache we experienced.