The Honda Civic GX is the only natural gas-powered car available for retail purchase in the U.S. -- and only to consumers in California and New York. Production for the 2008 model year is limited to only about 1,100 units, the entire allotment of which sold out early in the year. Wondering if you're missing out? Curious about the pros and cons? Read on.

Natural gas attractions

Honda's Civic GX runs only on compressed natural gas (CNG), a fossil fuel that's mainly methane. Stored onboard in a large, high-pressure tank, CNG is non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, has a high octane rating and poses no threat to soil or water. Almost 87 percent is domestically produced, and because CNG is a gas, it helps pave the way for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Civic GX attracts environmentally-focused buyers

By some estimates, the GX is 90 percent "cleaner" than the average gasoline vehicle. According to Honda, CNG produces 75-percent fewer smog-forming pollutants. According to the EPA, a Civic GX emits 30- to 40-percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. And for the fifth straight year, the CNG Civic was named "greenest vehicle" by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The CNG-powered internal combustion engine in the Civic GX generates a modest 113 horsepower. That output falls shorter of the 140 horsepower available in most other Civics, but compares favorably (barely) to the 110 combined horsepower produced by the Civic Hybrid's gas-electric system. Expect the Civic GX to drive like a slightly underpowered, slightly overweight economy car, but one with all the refinement, reliability and safety features of a "regular" Civic.

Purchase price is high, but incentives and fuel costs ease the pain

Available only with a five-speed automatic transmission, the GX costs almost $7,000 more than a gasoline-powered Civic LX sedan, $5,000 more than an upscale Civic EX, and $2,000 more than the Civic Hybrid. Lately, every model in the fuel-efficient Civic lineup has been selling close to -- or higher than -- Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

Measured in equivalent gallons of gasoline, the GX gets almost the same fuel-economy estimate from the EPA as other Civics: 24-mpg city/36-mpg highway. While those numbers fall short of the lower-priced Civic Hybrid's, compressed natural gas costs appreciably less than gasoline. At mid-2008 prices, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates an annual fuel cost of $884 for the Civic GX, compared to $2,122 for a gasoline Civic and $1,464 for the Civic Hybrid.

In addition, a Civic GX may still qualify for a $4,000 federal tax credit, plus a $3,000 rebate through the California Air Resource Board (CARB). The biggest draw for some is that solo drivers can drive natural gas Civics in high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in eight states and Washington, D.C. Owners even get free metered parking in several California cities.

Limited availability of cars and fuel keeps sales minimal

Honda shoppers in most of the country can't get a Civic that runs on natural gas. The GX sedan is sold at retail only in California and New York, though it's available to fleets in all states. About 1,500 stations nationwide sell natural gas, but only half are open to the public. Because it's used to heat homes, natural gas is available in many regions -- but not everywhere.

What must you give up to get into a GX?

In addition to using a less-potent engine, Honda's GX is 100-200 pounds heavier than gasoline-engine Civics. Tires are the same slim 15-inchers used on the least-costly Civic DX model; LX/EX Civics ride on 16-inch wheels. Nobody buys a GX for performance or sporty handling, and they won't get it.

The GX is comfortably equipped but lacks several features and options. Navigation and satellite radio are unavailable, and there's no moonroof or fold-down rear seatback. Even though the CNG tank is large enough that it cuts trunk space in half, a GX cannot go much more than 200 miles before requiring a fill-up.

The verdict?

If your chief goal is to limit the environmental impact of your personal mobility, the Civic GX may be the best car your money can buy. When you factor in potential tax incentives and rebates, lower fuel costs and single-occupancy access to HOV lanes, the CNG Civic becomes even more attractive to even more drivers. Whether a Civic GX makes more sense for you than other Civics depends on to what degree you're able to realize those advantages. Of course, if you don't live within practical range of a natural gas refueling station in California or New York, the decision is purely theoretical.

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