Will Natural-Gas Cars Ever Become a Consumer Trend?

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Photo: Honda

Are you in the market for the greenest vehicle you can drive that isn’t a 10-speed bike? Natural gas-powered cars could be both cleaner and cheaper to run than gasoline or diesel powered cars — theoretically at least. This year a natural gas powered car was even named Green Car of the Year by the Green Car Journal. So why aren’t natural gas powered cars popular with consumers?

If you don’t build it, they can’t come

The lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest reasons that natural gas powered vehicles haven’t taken off. Unlike gasoline and diesel fuel, you can’t find a natural gas station on every corner. Today there are less than 1,000 natural gas (CNG) fueling stations in the U.S., but some states don’t even have one, which would make it pretty tough to take a cross-country road trip. Akso unlike gasoline and diesel, owners of natural gas cars can refuel their cars in their own garages. But in order to do this, owners will need to pay for the system that enables this and the extra costs to have it installed.

READ MORE: Earth Institute: “Run Cars on Green Electricity, Not Natural Gas”

The cost comparison

The price of CNG fuel averages a little more than half of what a gallon of gasoline would cost. In July of this year the price of CNG was $2.89 compared to $3.80 for gasoline in San Diego, Calif. Refueling a natural gas vehicle at home using a home unit will drop that price even further, but are those gains enough to motivate buyers to chose a natural-gas powered vehicle over a comparable gasoline-powered model?

Photo: Author

Natural gas-powered vehicles cost more than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Currently Honda is the only automaker that sells a natural-gas powered model in the U.S. The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas starts at $26,155, while a comparably equipped, gasoline-powered Civic EX lists for around $20k. (The Hybrid starts at $24k.) Is the almost $6k premium over the Civic EX worth it?

Most buyers would probably say no, since there are more sacrifices in addition to the extra cost. The Civic Natural Gas looks identical to the gasoline powered Civic and is powered by the same 1.8L engine, but since natural gas is less energy intensive than gasoline, the four-cylinder only puts out 110 horsepower compared to 140 horsepower. The 2012 Civic Natural Gas has an EPA rating of 27 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway (gasoline-gallon equivalent), but it only has a range of up to 240 miles, which is pretty low compared to the 500 miles you could travel in the gasoline-powered Civic. (The electric Chevy Volt, by comparison, has a 350-mile range.) Cargo volume in the Civic Natural Gas also drops by half, since the CNG tank that holds the fuel takes up most of the space.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Green Cars (Plus: the Worst Offenders)

Photo: Honda

Who’s buying it?

According to Honda the people that do buy the Natural Gas Civic are older and wealthier than the standard Civic buyer. The Natural Gas Civic buyers’ average age is 52 with $225,000 median household income compared to the gasoline Civic buyer at 43 years old with a median household income of $65,000. Obviously most economically minded buyers are turned off by the higher costs and limited range of the Natural Gas Civic.

Right now natural-gas vehicles are more popular as fleet cars, but will natural gas cars ever be as popular as hybrids and electric cars? Natural gas cars could be an alternative to pricier electric cars, since both vehicles have limited range, but hybrids will continue to be the wiser choice at least until there are more re-fueling stations. For now, gas-powered cars will mainly appeal to consumers that are interested in greener driving and who are willing to deal with the drawbacks.

READ MORE: Ask Pablo: Diesel vs. Hybrid, Which Is Better?