Gas it right into the fast lane


GOOD sirs, sheath your Porsche Turbos and Dodge Vipers and Saleen S7s. The Honda Civic GX is the fastest automobile on the freeway today. You don’t stand a chance.

Because it burns super-clean compressed natural gas, the Civic GX permits solo drivers to use the high-occupancy-vehicle lane without the drudgery of human companionship. The Civic GX trails a series of baffling abbreviations behind it -- such as Alternative Fuel Vehicle (AFV) and Super Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV). The important thing to know is that, although there used to be a fair number of alt-fuel clean vehicles that qualified for HOV access -- including electric vehicles -- they are all but gone. GM and Ford, the two big players in compressed natural gas fleet vehicles, ended their programs last year.

As far as the market is concerned, the Civic GX has the diamond lane pretty much all to its lonesome.


And that’s why it’s the fastest. In the ordinary crush of L.A. commuting traffic, the gasping, 100-horsepower Civic GX will leave the brawniest 12-cylinder hypercars steaming in their own impotence.

Access to the HOV lane is highly coveted. Though the state would like to grant access to high-mileage hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, the federal government -- which has authority by way of the federal highway purse strings -- says no. Should that change, the Prius, the Honda Civic and Insight hybrids would all be eligible, while lower-mileage hybrids such as the Ford Escape and Lexus 400H would remain mired in traffic.

There are many good and high-minded reasons to own a Civic GX. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, using a method that accounts for total environmental impact, ranks the GX the greenest vehicle on the market, above even the vaunted Prius. Compressed natural gas -- or CNG -- technology is well understood, safe and reliable. Also, natural gas although still a fossil fuel and messy to extract -- is far cleaner than liquid petroleum, which requires energy-intensive refinement and shipping. Also, unlike Arab oil, natural gas is produced domestically and its supplies are projected to last for decades. At the margins, natural gas is renewable, though the economics of so-called bio-gas are debatable.

So why aren’t CNG vehicles such as the GX, and not hybrids and hydrogen, the caped crusaders of the green-car movement? Infrastructure.

Because of the scarcity of refueling stations and the vehicles’ limited range -- the Civic GX is good for about 200 miles per fill up -- CNG vehicles have been largely limited to fleet service, because fleets can provide their own fueling stations at a central depot. The relatively few private owners who drive CNG vehicles often have had to deal with spotty service, long lines and inconvenience (many CNG stations require dedicated charge cards). And they can’t range freely from metropolitan areas where stations are plentiful.

There was a time when CNG backers expected the infrastructure to expand, but that never happened. The infrastructure issue pretty much foreclosed CNG’s use in private vehicles.


Honda is skinning the infrastructure cat a little differently. In April, the company began non-fleet retail sales in California of the Civic GX paired with a home refueling station, the Phill. Built by a Canadian company called FuelMaker, the Phill station is a small compressor that connects to a home’s residential gas supply. GX owners can plug the pressure nozzle into the car and fill up overnight. That means drivers can have access to the HOV lane without the anxiety of finding fuel. They can fill up at the mother ship, just like the meter-reading minions of parking enforcement.

Let’s run some numbers, shall we? The Phill station costs $3,400, and installation runs about $1,000, though a lot depends on the kind of plumbing required. There is a $2,000 incentive from the state’s air-quality agencies to defray the cost of the first 400 Phill stations sold. So, in California at least, the Phill’s out-of-pocket costs are about $2,400. There is also a $2,000 tax break on the purchase of the Civic GX, which retails for $21,760 with anti-lock brakes.

Why would you bother? Because home-supplied natural gas is cheap -- something in the neighborhood of $1-$1.50 per gasoline-gallon equivalent. In other words, home CNG is half the price of pump gas.

Let’s assume a year’s driving is 12,000 miles and fuel economy of 25 miles to the gallon. At $2.50 per gallon of gas, that’s an annual cost of $1,200. With CNG, your annual cost drops to $600. You would recoup the expense of the Phill station in four years. If, however, you had a not-unusual 100-mile daily commute -- figure about 20,000 miles annually -- your fuel savings would amount to $1,000 per year.

To sum up: the Civic GX and Phill station offer the cleanest, least guilt-ridden transportation on the market, as well as huge fuel cost savings, and HOV access, which can add years to your life otherwise lost in aggravation.

Where’s the downside? As I said, there are many good reasons to own a Civic GX, but driving pleasure is not among them. Styled like the dull end of a spoon, this car is boring on a scale that calls for parsecs. Cloth seats, a dinky two-speaker stereo, a trunk eaten up by the CNG cylinder, steel wheels and a 1.7-liter four-cylinder under the hood -- or an asthmatic squirrel -- the GX could school Savonarola on privation. The car’s CVT gearbox howls for mercy at 80 miles per hour, which is how fast you have to drive sometimes so you don’t get plowed under in the HOV lane. I suppose a CNG Corvette would be out of line?


Cynics might also point out that Honda’s GX program amounts to only a few hundred cars and that the cars’ HOV access expires in 2007 unless extended by lawmakers. The whole endeavor has a feeling of being played out after the two-minute warning.

And yet, for penny-pinching clean-air fanatics who have arduous daily commutes, don’t like music or driving and are too anti-social to carpool, the Civic GX is the ultimate automobile, the fastest wheel in the urban gerbil cage. And I mean that in a good way.



2005 Honda Civic GX

Powertrain: CNG 1.7-liter SOHC inline four cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission (CVT), front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 100 at 6,100 rpm

Torque: 98 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Curb weight: 2,685 pounds

0-60 mph: 12 seconds

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

Overall length: 175.4 inches

EPA fuel economy: 30 miles per gallon equivalent city, 34 mp-GGE highway.

Final thoughts: The fastest car you’ll ever pass

Contact automotive critic Dan Neil at