So you've seen those TV commercials starring energy magnate T. Boone Pickens, touting compressed natural gas as an alternative to gasoline.
Yes. Just not in Florida so much.
A little history: There was a time when several manufacturers, including General Motors and Ford, sold cars, trucks and vans that would run on compressed natural gas. Most of those were fleet cars, such as plain-vanilla Chevrolet Cavaliers and Ford Crown Victorias. A company called CNG Motors in Arizona specializes in selling used CNG-powered vehicles: A 2001 Cavalier, for instance, is listed for $12,500 on the company Web site (CNGmotors .com).
Currently, there is only one from-the-factory new car that is powered by compressed natural gas: It's the Honda Civic GX, which looks just like any other Honda Civic, except for the CNG badge on the back. It's the third-generation CNG-powered Civic, so the company has a lot of experience with the fuel source.
Still, it represents a small percentage of total sales. "Honda has long averaged about 1,000 Civic GXs a month," said Sara Pines, the company's Southeast regional public relations coordinator. That's a drop in the bucket considering total Civic sales in the U.S. topped 30,000 in August.
What has changed, said Pines, is the customer: Traditionally CNG-powered vehicles have been for fleet use, in demand by companies or government agencies with inexpensive access to natural gas. "Now, we're getting a lot more interest from private consumers," she said. Demand for the Civic GX is at an all-time high, but so far, Honda hasn't stepped up production, though that's a possibility in the future.
"Depending on what the dealers are selling them for, they can be $4,000 more apiece than a comparable gasoline-powered Civic," Pines said. With shipping, the Civic GX lists for $25,260, though Kelley Blue Book, an automotive pricing source, says they are actually selling for an average of $26,523. That's for a car with a 1.8-liter, 113-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. The GX's fuel mileage is EPA-rated at 24 miles per gallon in the city, 36 mpg highway, pretty close to a regular Civic.
87 cents a gallon?
Here's where it gets interesting: According to the U.S. Department of Energy's latest fuel price report, in July the average price for regular gasoline in the U.S. was $3.91 a gallon, while CNG was $2.34 -- $1.57 a gallon cheaper. It's much cheaper in some states -- right now, it's 87 cents a gallon in Utah and $1.14 a gallon in Oklahoma.
Add to that the Internal Revenue Service's "Qualified Alternative Fuel Motor Vehicle Credit" for the 2008 Honda Civic GX: A heady $4,000, more than you'll get for any hybrid vehicle.
Very, very few copies of the Honda Civic GX make it to Florida -- they tend to go to states where natural gas is more popular. Florida has no meaningful incentives for CNG-powered cars. In California, for instance, incentives can range from as high as $5,000 per "clean energy" vehicle, down to free parking in downtown Hermosa Beach. Honda does not, however, have any problems selling Civic GXs in Florida, but your local dealer would likely have to acquire one from another dealer in another state, Pines said.
So what's wrong with Florida? There just isn't a CNG fueling infrastructure here. The Web site CNGprices.com lists just one CNG station, near Fort Lauderdale, with natural gas selling for $1.60 a gallon.
Though only Honda makes a CNG car, there are dozens of companies that offer conversion kits for regular vehicles, or do the conversions themselves. Cars that operate on CNG start and run just like gasoline-powered cars -- in fact, most of the conversions allow for using CNG or gasoline.
One company offers conversion kits for about $1,500, and charges $1,500 to install the kit. And you'll need a tank to hold the CNG at about 3,000 pounds of pressure -- figure upward of $2,000 for that. Some kits and conversions are certified by the EPA, some are not, and there could be an issue with your car insurance if you convert. One good place to start your research: CNGchat .com, a helpful online forum for natural-gasaholics.
Refuel at home
Honda, of course, has done its homework on the GX, including the refueling issue: Owners of GXs typically refuel the cars at their homes, using a device called the Phill, a 100-pound box that mounts on the wall of your garage, taps into the same natural gas source that powers your gas dryer or gas oven, and refills your Civic GX. It can take 16 hours for a full fill, but Honda says if you drive, say, 100 miles a day, refilling can be done overnight. The unit can be purchased, but most customers lease it. Phill is offered in 13 states right now -- Florida is not one of them.
Yet, anyway. Several companies, including one called Wise Gas in Coral Springs, are involved in building that refueling infrastructure, including getting Phill-certified.
Stay tuned: It seems $4-a-gallon gasoline has triggered that good ol' American entrepreneurial spirit.
Just ask T. Boone.
Sentinel Automotive Editor
Steven Cole Smith can be reached