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Follow-Up Test: 2006 Honda Civic GX

Honda Civic
Running out of juice in a natural-gas vehicle (NGV) is different from your usual side-of-the-road snafu. You can't carry extra compressed natural gas (CNG) in a container. If you're stuck, neither the local filling station nor AAA can help you with this particular alternative fuel.

The CNG fuel tank in the 2006 Honda Civic GX is large (Honda had to design around it), but for all its bulk, the super-safe tank only holds the equivalent of 8 gallons of gasoline. A Civic LX, by contrast, holds 65 percent more. Since the EPA's mileage estimates for the two Civics don't differ much (28 city/39 highway for the GX, 30 city/40 highway for the LX), GX owners will need to refuel almost twice as often as LX owners.

Which is a natural place to begin our review of this vehicle.

Despite being identical in many ways to its hugely popular Civic cousins, the Honda NGV is limited perhaps even handicapped by its eco-friendly fueling system. Few folks live near the 650 or so public natural-gas pumps across the U.S. That makes the natural-gas car most suitable for those who know exactly how far they will travel each day: short-haul commuters, students and some fleets. Traveling farther than Honda's estimated 200 miles per tank requires researching the hours and location of natural-gas pumps along a pre-planned route. A hassle, to be sure.

Our drives saw nowhere near the EPA-estimated mpg (likely due to heavy urban driving and constant A/C during a heat wave). The row of small blue squares indicating the amount of gas in the tank were like a series of little Houdinis: Each time we'd look up, another one had disappeared. As a result, refueling became our main preoccupation, and we glanced at the gas gauge as often as the speedometer. For a car that's billed as having great fuel economy, we found it quite nerve-racking.

There is one alternative to the hunt for pumps: the Phill home refueling appliance, made by FuelMaker. Installed in the garage or on an outside wall, it hooks into your home's natural-gas line. Attaching the pump to the car for an overnight refill will save roughly $1 per gallon equivalent compared to the CNG pump price, which averaged $1.90 nationally in June compare that to gasoline prices, which continue to hover close to $3/gallon.

People who have the Phill are wildly enthusiastic about its convenience, but in terms of cost savings, it's a long-term investment. It costs $3,400 to purchase plus shipping, and professional installation (required) is roughly $900-$1,500. To offset the cost, there's a $1,000 federal tax credit toward installation, and some states or cities provide substantial rebates. Southern Californians, for example, get $2,000 cash back if they lease the Phill through a Honda GX dealer.

For the privilege of driving its natural-gas car, Honda is charging $24,440 MSRP, a full seven Gs more than an LX. That number is offset somewhat by a whopping $4,000 federal tax credit the highest among passenger vehicles.

The GX shares the same 16-valve SOHC 1.8-liter inline-4 i-VTEC engine as the DX, LX and EX Civic models, with a five-speed automatic transmission replacing the 2005 GX's continuously variable transmission. But while the gasoline-powered 1.8 gets 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, the GX's CNG-fueled version gets only 113 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque. Throw in the GX's extra 153 pounds and it's clear why the GX's 0-60 time was a sluggish 12.6 seconds, and a quarter-mile run took approximately forever (18.9 seconds). Since acceleration is so lazy throughout the rev range, merging and passing maneuvers shouldn't be executed on a whim. Once at speed, though, the car keeps pace without complaining.

The GX's 15-inch steel wheels and hard, Dunlop SP Sport 5000 M+S tires contributed to its average braking and handling numbers. Stopping from 60 mph took 135 feet, and the car pulled a ho-hum 0.75g on the skid pad.

The most obvious physical difference between the GX sedan and a regular Civic four-door is in the cargo capacity. While the garden-variety Civics have 12 cubic feet in the trunk, the GX can only offer 6, allowing for the enlarged fuel tank. The cargo space runs the entire width of the trunk and is just right for a neat line of grocery bags, but forget about carrying a stroller or anything found in a warehouse store. This is roadster-sized trunk space.

Another striking difference between the GX and other Civics or any other self-respecting passenger car is the GX's audio system. Despite its CD/MP3/WMA capability and speed-sensitive volume control, the GX has only two front speakers; the large fuel tank preempted any in the rear. That could kill the deal for many audiophiles, since listening to tunes in the GX feels a little like traveling back in time. There's no optional equipment for the GX, either. None. This leaves the dealer with only one question for an interested buyer: "What color do you like?"

Now, the good news
What makes the GX unique is its environmental consciousness. To drive the GX is to drive one of the least polluting cars on the planet; it's the only sedan certified as a Super-Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) in all 50 states. Since the U.S. has an abundant supply of natural gas, it also reduces our dependence on foreign oil. Finally, an NGV grants its owner access to the carpool lanes while driving solo, an important consideration in urban areas.

Based on the all-new 2006 Civic platform, the Civic GX both looks good and rides well for an economy car. Its body is an attractive and aerodynamic improvement over its predecessor. Outward visibility is excellent, and fit and finish meets Honda's usual high standards. Squeaks and rattles are absent, though there is some wind noise, particularly once the car hits 60 mph.

The GX's interior offers a flat floor in the rear and a somewhat infamous split-level dash (both new this year). The large digital speedometer sits below the windshield, where it boldly calls attention to driving speed. Though they're not exactly stylish, we appreciated the large, infinitely adjustable knobs for the fan and A/C. Surfaces were mostly hard or textured plastic, but Honda put the soft stuff where it counts most: the steering wheel, armrests and shifter. The steering rack is tight and feels great under the hand.

The front-row cupholders have a nifty roll-top cover which, when closed, offers a small but useful flat surface and a more streamlined appearance. Storage cubbyholes were sufficient, but rubber lining would have been an inexpensive improvement.

The driver seat was surprisingly comfy, thanks to the just-right amount of bolstering, plush corduroy fabric and one of the only active head restraints we've seen that's tolerable in its proper position. (Attention: Volvo and BMW.) These are the smaller things that can make a big difference in how a driver feels about a car.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish?
Honda will sell all 1,000 CNG-powered Civics it makes this year to eco-friendly consumers. Still, saving money with the GX depends on so many factors (miles driven per year, CNG pump or Phill, for example) that prospective buyers should do some real number crunching before taking on this quirky car. While it feels good to pay, say, $15 for a fill-up, the upfront price and limited utility of the NGV may turn out to be more costly in the long run. For all the GX's alternative fuel bragging rights, you couldn't blame someone who opts for the less expensive, more convenient Civic LX and makes a sizable donation to the environmental lobby.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation. Line

Follow-Up Test: 2006 Honda Civic GX
Japanese Import Car, New & Used Car, 2007