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Honda looks to dealers to boost natural gas station network

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Honda Motor Co., the only automaker selling compressed natural gas-powered cars to U.S. drivers, wants some of its dealers to also install pumps to sell the fuel as its seeks to double sales of CNG vehicles.

Boosting sales of Indiana-built Civic Natural Gas sedans requires more fuel stations, said Steve Center, Honda's U.S. vice president for environmental business development. Honda is negotiating with regulators in California, the biggest U.S. market for CNG vehicles, seeking to have pumps placed at two or more Honda dealerships this year, he said Tuesday.

“If the dealer had a fueling station, it would really reduce some of that concern for the customer,” Center said at Honda’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif. “It’s not our place to create infrastructure, but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation and we’re going to have to nurse that egg along.”

Honda’s strategy of marketing autos powered by natural gas, a domestically sourced fuel that’s cheaper than gasoline and emits less tailpipe exhaust, comes as U.S.-based competitors plan their own CNG models. General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC this week both said they’re readying pickups that will run on the fuel.

The United States on Tuesday raised its forecast for natural gas output in 2012 by 0.4 percent and lowered its outlook for prices. Marketed gas production will average 67.91 billion cubic feet a day in 2012, up from 67.64 billion estimated in February, the Energy Department said in its monthly Short-Term Energy Outlook, released in Washington, D.C.

The International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles says on its website there were 1,000 stations and 112,000 natural gas vehicles in the U.S. as of December 2010.

Currently, 270 U.S. Honda dealers plan to sell the Civic Natural Gas, a revamped version of the Civic GX compact sold since the 1990s. The Tokyo-based carmaker’s initial goal is to sell “4,000 to 5,000” CNG vehicles annually, double the previous annual rate, Center said.

The car is made at Honda's plant in Greensburg, about 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

Details such as the cost of a CNG station at a dealership, how many vehicles it could serve a day and how many such facilities may be established are still being studied, Center said. Honda can work with dealers to obtain needed permits, apply for public incentives and provide financing, he said.

“Something like this helps fill in holes,” Center said. “We want to select a couple of test cases and walk through it.”

Honda’s Civic Natural Gas sedan costs $26,155, or $2,100 more than a hybrid version of the compact model. The car was named 2012 Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles auto show in November.

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