Natural Gas Vehicles: Why Aren’t We Buying Them?
Remember the hype back in 2012, when Honda released its natural-gas-powered Civic across the U.S.? No? Maybe you were distracted by the predicted Mayan apocalypse. Anyway, it was a big deal: Finally, anyone could drive a compressed natural gas (CNG) car, which is both cleaner and cheaper to operate than conventional-fuel cars. That’s why now, five years later, we’re all driving… the same old conventional-fuel cars.
What happened to natural gas vehicles? Why aren’t they more common? And are there still advantages to driving CNG cars? Here’s everything you need to know.
Natural Gas Cars: The Pros
There are two types of CNG vehicles — Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Both are fuel-efficient vehicles that burn low-emissions fuel that’s better for the environment than petroleum-based fuels. They aren’t expensive to build and don’t pose any danger greater than that of traditional gasoline vehicles. Here are the pros of driving a CNG car.
- The fuel’s cheap. Because of the rise in fracking — an efficient, if environmentally problematic, method of extracting natural gas from underground shale —natural gas is abundant and inexpensive.
- CNG vehicles have low emissions. Compared to gasoline, compressed natural gas reduces carbon-monoxide emissions by 90 to 97 percent and nitrogen-oxide emissions by 35 to 60 percent. Natural gas is also domestically produced, for the most part, so driving a CNG car means you’re not dependent on foreign oil.
- Compressed natural gas vehicles look and feel like conventional cars. While their engines and fuel systems are modified to make use of natural gas, CNG vehicles are otherwise quite similar to existing gasoline or diesel cars. You can even convert a conventional car to run on natural gas.
- CNG hybrids are available. Some CNG cars are designed to run on both CNG and gasoline, eliminating “range anxiety” and allowing the driver to go a long, long time between fill-ups. The 2016 Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel can go for about 600 miles on the highway when both tanks are full.
- You get a few perks for driving a CNG car. In California, CNG vehicles can get a decal that allows them to use the carpool (HOV) lanes even with a single occupant. Your state may offer tax incentives and other rewards.
The Cons of Driving CNG Cars
- While CNG is cheap, it isn’t always cheaper than gasoline. If a gallon of compressed natural gas costs $2.25, that sounds pretty good — but if gasoline costs $2.50 per gallon, you’re not saving a ton. Fuel prices can be volatile, so savings aren’t guaranteed.
- You need a nearby network of CNG fuel stations. Look at CNGNow’s map of stations in the United States, and you’ll see that some metro areas — like Boston, New York City and Los Angeles — have dozens of fuel stations. But smaller cities, like Memphis and New Orleans, may only have one, and vast parts of the country have none. Home fueling is possible but can be a slow process.
- CNG fuel efficiency isn’t great. Compared to gasoline, natural gas is cheaper and cleaner — but it’s just not as good a fuel. Fuel efficiency for compressed natural gas vehicles can be difficult for the consumer to calculate, as the metric for fuel efficiency in CNG and LNG vehicles isn’t actually miles per gallon (MPGs), but is MPGe — miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. The 2015 CNG Honda Civic gets 31 MPGe, according to federal fuel-economy stats. The 2016 Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel gets 19 MPGe. That’s not knocking anyone’s socks off.
- CNG cars are more expensive. On Cargurus.com, the price of a low-mileage 2015 Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel varies wildly, but we found a few listed for around $23,000. Considering they cost $37,000 new, that sounds like a good deal. Trouble is, you can buy a newer, nicely equipped conventional Impala for the same price — or less.
- Compressed natural gas vehicles are hard to find in the U.S. consumer market. Honda stopped manufacturing the natural-gas Civic in 2015. Chevrolet discontinued the bi-fuel Impala in 2017. Aside from fleet sales, there’s really no automaker offering CNG vehicles in the U.S. market right now.
Should you buy a CNG vehicle?
Despite the many drawbacks, CNG cars have their devotees. And there’s a good chance gasoline prices will rise, making low-cost natural gas more appealing. If you live in an urban area with plenty of CNG fuel stations, or you’re willing to invest in a home fueling system, a natural-gas vehicle might be the perfect fit for your daily commute.
Then again, if your primary goal is to drive a cleaner, greener car, you have lots of options!