By Jim MacPherson
When asked which cars get the best fuel economy, most people immediately think of gas-electric hybrids. There’s good reason for this, as compact and midsize hybrids produce outstanding EPA fuel economy numbers.
Honda has two hybrid sedans; the Civic and Insight. Both in produced over-40-mile-per-gallon fuel economy in careful test driving. Honda, however, seems to be intent on proving that there are other ways to deliver excellent fuel economy by producing two other Civic models: the HF and Natural Gas, previously known as the GX. Both are four-door compact sedans.
Think of the HF as the Civic Hybrid, but without the hybrid drivetrain. This model is strictly a gasoline powered vehicle with no battery-powered electric motors to help or replace the gasoline engine. However, it has many of the tweaks that Honda includes in the Civic Hybrid, including the aerodynamic upgrades and modifications to reduce rolling resistance. These include the use of tires that offer 21 percent less rolling resistance than the tires found on other Civics.
"The HF appeals to the same clientele as the Hybrid, but it costs less," says Jason Behan, Internet sales manager at Liberty Honda in Hartford. "The HF comes close to the Hybrid’s economy." That it comes only with the five-speed automatic is not an issue with buyers, according to Behan.
The Civic Natural Gas is going mainstream in 2012. In the past, Honda has officially offered this model, which burns only compressed natural gas, to fleet buyers in four states. Now, anyone in 36 states can buy one as Honda increases the number of dealers selling this car from 71 to 200.
So, what’s it like to drive one of these non-hybrid but efficient Civics? The answer: very much like driving a standard Civic. The Civic HF, with its five-speed automatic transmission and 1.8-liter, 140-horsepower engine four-cylinder engine delivers a family-friendly performance. A run to 60 miles per hour takes 9.6 seconds, but the car feels livelier than that number suggests once underway. Handling is nicely balanced. A mix of highway and suburban use, all with a mindset geared toward fuel economy, delivered 41.5 mile-per-gallons.
Performance cools a bit in the Civic Natural Gas. While also powered by a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, power output is reduced to 110 horsepower. This impacts acceleration and makes the car feel a little sluggish when facing hills. The climb after passing through the West Rock Tunnel on Route 15 in New Haven, for example, required full throttle to maintain speed.
The payoff with the Civic Natural Gas comes at the pump. Fill the eight gasoline gallon equivalent fuel tank with natural gas compressed to 3,600 lbs/square-inch and you will have enough fuel for up to 240 miles. I averaged nearly 45 miles per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) on the highway, but this dropped when I mixed in a substantial amount of around town use.
In theory, the savings should not end there. Generally, a GGE of natural gas should be much less than gasoline. In some parts of the country, the price has been as low as $1.26. In the Northeast, the price is closer to $2.40 to $2.70 a GGE. During the review period, however, the only source of compressed natural gas available to the public charged retail customers $3.89 a gallon. More stations are coming, which should lower the price.
"It’s really a chicken-and-the-egg issue," says Jay Guzowski, senior product planner for Honda. "Car makers don’t build natural gas vehicles because there are no or few stations and gas stations don’t add natural gas because there are no cars. We’ve decided to build the cars and expect the stations to follow."
As for the ride and handling, these penny-pinching, fuel-sipping Honda Civics feel much like the more common Civic DX, LX or EX. Feedback to the driver with the electric power steering feels a little unnatural, however. The interiors are comfortable, though the abundance of hard-to-the-touch plastics is a little disappointing.
For people who want to limit their consumption of fuel and minimize their ecological impact, Honda now has three Civics worthy of consideration: the Hybrid, the HF and the Natural Gas. Take your pick.
Honda Civic HF starts at $19,455. Natural Gas model at $26,155
Engines: 1.8 HF 1.8 Natural Gas
HP 140 110
Torque (lb-ft) 128 106
EPA 29/41 27/38