NEW YORK – On a rollercoaster planning ride in the Honda executive suites, the Civic CNG model finally made its way down the Greensburg, IN, assembly line on schedule last month.

“We thought (the production launch) might have to slide to January because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan,” says Eric Rosenberg, assistant manager-Civic natural gas and marketing for Honda. “But we were able to advance it again to October.”

Some 13,000 older-generation Civic CNG vehicles are on American roads today. That's about 10% of all the natural-gas-powered light vehicles in service in the U.S.

Honda says Civic CNG production totals about 2,000 units annually. Dealers have orders for more than 600 units in hand. Rosenberg says initial plans call for the retail division to get 50% of output.

“But if there is more fleet demand, then production will go there,” he says. “It all depends on demand.”

One of the biggest initial orders is for 32 CNG-fueled cars from Consolidated Edison of New York, a giant utility. Another big customer is National Grid, which delivers natural gas to 3.4 million customers in New England and New York.

However, Rosenberg is surprised by the growing interest in the Civic CNG from environmentally concerned retail customers. Honda has expanded its retail operations for the new model, which is the only natural-gas-fueled car manufactured in the U.S. There are aftermarket companies that convert other makes to run on CNG.

Availability has been broadened to 36 states, and Honda will increase the number of certified CNG dealers to 200 by year’s end, up from 71. California alone gets 22 more CNG dealers.

Dealers must be within 20 miles (32 km) of a public fueling center. Honda also requires each dealer to certify two master technicians to work on the vehicles. The auto maker’s service division has developed a 2-1/2 day course, taught in eight schools, that technicians are required to attend to receive certification.

Sales and marketing support for the new CNG car has been beefed up, with all district managers now having the vehicle in their sales portfolio. Rosenberg says he has a total of 100 people selling the product.

“This year, the Civic CNG has a prominent spot in the Civic brochure for the first time,” he says. There will be no TV advertising, but the model “should work its way into print advertising at some point.”

At $26,155, the Civic CNG carries a $4,500 premium over the Civic EX gasoline model. With navigation, the CNG version is $27,655.

Rosenberg says the natural-gas model has many unique parts that add to the vehicle's cost. For instance, the car’s carbon-fiber-encased aluminum fuel tank, which is made by SCI in Pomona, CA, costs about $4,000, compared with a couple hundred dollars for a gasoline fuel tank.

Also required by the natural-gas car are sensors used to monitor fuel-tank pressure, fuel temperature and rail pressure. A fuel-shutoff solenoid valve, special fuel filters, pressure regulator and dedicated gaseous fuel injectors also are needed.

“We're looking for ways to take costs out,” Rosenberg says.

The Civic CNG is powered by a 1.8L 4-cyl. engine and has an 8-gallon (30L) fuel tank that provides a 248-mile (400-km) cruising range. That's a 10% increase over the predecessor model’s 224-mile (360-km) range.

The engine generates 110 hp at 6,300 rpm and 106 lb.-ft. (144 Nm) of torque at 4,200 rpm. Fuel economy is rated 27/38/31 mpg (8.7-6.2-7.6 L/100 km) city/highway/combined.

In a short test drive along New York's Hudson River, the CNG experience is transparent. There are no major differences to note compared with driving a gasoline-fueled Civic. Noise levels are about the same and there are no fumes to indicate the car is running on an alternative fuel.

Natural-gas supplies are abundant, says Kathryn Clay, executive director of advocacy group Drive Natural Gas Initiative. CNG costs 47% less than gasoline on average and burns far cleaner than gasoline or diesel fuel.

Carbon-dioxide emissions are 20%-30% lower and carbon monoxide is cut 70%-90%, she says. There are 75%-95% less nitrogen-oxide emissions and 90% fewer particulates.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to CNG is the process used to make the fuel. Popularly referred to as fracking, it is widely opposed by environmentalists, and hotly contested court cases over the process are expected.

Honda is committed to its limited CNG foray. But so far, the auto maker has no plans to make CNG engines available in other models, Rosenberg says. CNG is far more popular in Europe, where Fiat produces 150,000 CNG-fueled vehicles annually.