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It's (Not) Electric: Why A Natural Gas Car is the Greenest of 2011

Green means less science fiction, more market impact.

At the Los Angeles auto show, where practically all the car companies I’d heard of and many I had not exhibited their latest models, nearly all of them had a new electric-only vehicle to display: The newest iteration of the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, the Honda FIT EV, the Mitsubishi MiEV, the Ford Focus Electric, Toyota’s new all-electric Prius, and upstart CODA’s EV Sedan, which promises the longest range, at 150 miles on a single charge.

It seemed like a sea change: Every company wanted to get into the all-electric game, just as the Prius’ success helped catalyze the market for hybrid cars. When the autoshow announced the winner of the 2012 Green Car of the Year award, I was waiting for an electric vehicle to take the cake.

Instead, the winner was the Honda Civic GX, which runs entirely on natural gas. It’s the only consumer natural gas vehicle sold in the United States. Largely marketed as a fleet vehicle (say, your city’s parking meter readers), Honda will now sell them to average car buyers in 36 states with enough natural gas fill-up stations to support them.

“The biggest misconception about green cars is that there is a single answer, and that it's electric,” Ron Cogan, the editor of the Green Car Journal, the publication behind the award, said after the ceremony.

It’s an important lesson for green business: The perfect future (all electric cars!) or the coolest present isn’t as important as what’s immediately practical and promises the broadest impact.

Cogan explained that despite advances in electric car technology, “until the battery issue is resolved, it’ll continue to be a challenge.”

The battery issue is that it's still quite expensive to build an electric vehicle that has range and reliability but is still cheap enough for the average consumer; most EVs are priced at $35,000 or more, pricey for a sedan. While tax rebates and other government incentives can help bring those numbers down as much as $7,500, Cogan questions how long they’ll continue to exist as Washington contemplates tax reform and a mounting deficit.

That’s one of the reasons that Cogan says that President Obama’s goal of putting a million electric vehicles on America’s roads by 2015 is “ludicrous.”

The Honda Civic GX, on the other hand, starts at $26,155. Cogan says that creates a potential for market impact—a lot of people buying them—that will have more environmental impact than electric vehicles. Besides being more costly, electric cars can lack some of the bells and whistles that consumers are used to: GPS navigation and Bluetooth integration, for example, which are both found in the Civic.

That makes driving the Civic something of a let-down for the futurist. Taking it on a few laps of downtown Los Angeles was like driving, well, a Civic. It's just harder to find a gas station, although both the Civic and the Leaf have GPS technology that makes finding their respective fill-up points easier. And the trunk is smaller, since the pressurized gas tank must be covered in carbon fiber net for safety purposes.

Driving the Leaf, on the other hand, is a little more science fiction: It’s so quiet that the company had to get a new motor for its windshield wipers and patent a new design for the headlights so they funnel air around the side-mirrors; without them, driving the car sounds like you have a window open. You have a power usage gauge instead of a tachometer, and you put the car in gear by manipulating a hemispheric control unit. But when you turn on the air conditioning, the range left gauge drops from 76 miles to 68: You're using too much power!

And while anything internal combustion doesn't seem green, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has recognized the Civic GX as the greenest vehicle for several years, largely because it produces fewer emissions than hybrids. The only vehicle that matches its score is, of course, the Leaf.

A Honda rep told me the company expects to sell 2,000 Civic GXs to consumers in the next year; a Nissan rep told me the company sold 8,500 Leafs in the past year with more customers on the wait-list.

Choosing between the two vehicles is a question of use: The Leaf would be perfect for as a commuter’s car (most people only drive 35 miles a day) but isn’t up for a road trip to grandma’s house. On the other hand, the GX could fully replace its gasoline-powered equivalent. But both are necessary to expand the market in green cars and create the iterative pressure on engineers and designers to make green cars increasingly efficient and competitive, even as the infrastructure for green cars—recharge points and natural gas fill-ups—is built up around the country.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you and everybody else out there buying a car. “It’s not clear what consumers are going to migrate to,” Cogan says. What’s clear from the manufacturers’ 2012 line-ups, at least, is that the migration is toward cleaner cars. What kind of clean is still up for debate.

Photo courtesy of Honda

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