Will natural-gas cars ever be suitable for consumer use?

The cost comparison
Have you ever seen a natural gas bus?
Have you ever seen a natural gas bus?
Grand Canyon NPS/Creative Commons

The price of CNG fuel averages a little more than half of what a gallon of gasoline would cost. In July of this year the price of CNG was $2.89 compared to $3.80 for gasoline in San Diego, Calif. Refueling a natural gas vehicle at home using a home unit will drop that price even further, but are those gains enough to motivate buyers to chose a natural-gas powered vehicle over a comparable gasoline-powered model?

Natural gas-powered vehicles cost more than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Currently Honda is the only automaker that sells a natural-gas powered model in the U.S. The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas starts at $26,155, while a comparably equipped, gasoline-powered Civic EX lists for around $20k. (The Hybrid starts at $24k.) Is the almost $6k premium over the Civic EX worth it?

Most buyers would probably say no, since there are more sacrifices in addition to the extra cost. The Civic Natural Gas looks identical to the gasoline powered Civic and is powered by the same 1.8L engine, but since natural gas is less energy intensive than gasoline, the four-cylinder only puts out 110 horsepower compared to 140 horsepower. The 2012 Civic Natural Gas has an EPA rating of 27 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway (gasoline-gallon equivalent), but it only has a range of up to 240 miles, which is pretty low compared to the 500 miles you could travel in the gasoline-powered Civic. (The electric Chevy Volt, by comparison, has a 350-mile range.) Cargo volume in the Civic Natural Gas also drops by half, since the CNG tank that holds the fuel takes up most of the space.