Save Money on Gas: Buy a Natural Gas-Fueled Car

Last Updated Feb 25, 2011 11:27 AM EST

As prices at the gas pump keep rising, you may be looking into buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. But you'd also do well to check out cars that run on a fuel that costs much less than regular gasoline, and whose supply is never threatened by chaos in the Middle East: natural gas.

The natural gas-fueled Honda Civic GX, previously sold only in four states, will soon be available from Honda dealerships across the country. While electric cars and plug-in hybrids have gotten most of the recent alternative-fuel attention recently, the Civic GX topped a recent list of greenest cars published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The GX -- the only factory-built, natural gas car here -- has almost no air-polluting emissions, and is low on greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

But what does natural gas cost? Depending where you live and whether you're filling up from a home pump or a commercial fueling station, natural gas costs the equivalent of $1 to $2.50 a gallon, versus the recent $3.25 per gallon national average for regular gasoline. Availability of fueling stations can be an issue, however. In California, New York, Oklahoma, and Utah -- the four states where the Civic GX has been sold up to now -- fueling stations are plentiful. In other states, though, they can be few and far between. To see what's available in your area, check out this map showing stations and their prices.

In some countries, natural gas cars are widespread. Brazil, for instance, has more than 1.5 million such cars on the road. But forecasters here expect the inconvenience of filling up to limit the expansion of natural gas much beyond government and business vehicles. "We see more natural gas use for truck fleets where they can have a central tank and pumps," says Michael Omotoso, senior power train analyst for J.D. Power and Associates. Omotoso also sees the original cost of the Civic GX --a list price of $25,490 -- as a limiting factor. But tax credits for buying natural gas cars are available in some states -- for example, $3,400 in Oklahoma and $2,500 in Utah. A federal tax credit has expired but may be restored in pending energy legislation.

And the fuel supply issue can be overcome if you already have natural gas at home for your stove or other appliances. John O'Dell, a senior editor at the automotive information web site Edmunds.com, bought a Civic GX in 2008 and installed a natural gas pump (example pictured at right) in his garage with a branch line from the meter already at the house. Much like plugging in an electric commuter car, he attaches the pump to the car when he comes home at night, and the tank is filled by the morning. Also like electric cars, natural gas cars have a limit to their range: about 200 miles on a full tank.

But if you are an environmentally-minded shopper looking for a commuter car, natural gas gives you some clear advantages:

1. Low fuel costs. By filling up at home, O'Dell figures the cost on his gas bill is the equivalent of $1.30 per gallon of gas when gasoline prices in his home state of California are averaging $3.65. The Civic GX is rated the equivalent of 24 mpg in city driving, and 36 mpg on the highway.

2. Low maintenance costs. Because it is a cleaner-burning fuel, natural gas cars do not have to go in for maintenance checkups as often as regular gasoline-powered cars.

3. A speedier commute. Natural gas cars in California, Utah, Oklahoma and some other states can use the high-occupancy car pool lanes even with only one driver. In O'Dell's case, that cuts an hour a day off his 108-mile round-trip commute through congested Southern California.

Perhaps best of all, O'Dell doesn't have to stop at gasoline stations. "I don't have to feel my blood pressure rising along with gasoline prices," he says.

Photos Courtesty of Honda

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.