Free Fuel! Ultra-Cheap Leases! Automakers Sweeten Deals on Alternative-Energy Cars

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Honda / PRNewsFoto / AP

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

What with gasoline prices rising unexpectedly lately, drivers are more likely than usual to consider a vehicle powered by cheaper energy sources. Sensing an opportunity, Honda is now offering the equivalent of three years’ free fuel with the purchase of a new Civic that runs on natural gas—which currently costs less than half the price of regular gas in California. In recent months, Chevy and Nissan have also ramped up incentives to sell alternative-energy models.

The Honda Civic Natural Gas has a sticker price starting at $26,305. That’ s more than $10,000 over the regular Civic sedan ($15,955). The higher price, as well as the fact that you can’t fill up the CNG at just any old gas station—only select stations with natural gas pumps will do—has meant that few drivers are opting for the natural gas vehicle.

But amid soaring gas prices in California, Honda is trying to make the case that the CNG deserves a second look. Not only will CNG owners save 40% or more on the cost of fueling up, but thanks to a new offer from Honda and the natural gas station operator Clean Energy Fuels Corp., fuel will be free, at least for a while, for consumers purchasing a 2012 Honda CNG.

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The free gas comes in the form of a $3,000 debit card that can be used at any Clean Energy gas station—there are 163 (and counting) in the U.S. The card is awarded as an incentive to anyone purchasing a new Honda Civic Natural Gas vehicle, which is sold at nearly 200 Honda dealerships in 36 states. The Los Angeles Times estimates that the $3,000 card amounts to roughly three years worth of fuel, considering today’s prices and typical driving habits.

Lately, natural gas has been selling for a smidge over $2 per gallon, or around $1.50 to $2 cheaper than regular gasoline. A Honda spokesperson told the LA Times that the automaker hopes the $3,000 fuel card proves to be “a tipping point for more consumer consideration” of natural gas vehicles.

Other automakers have also found it necessary to offer extra incentives to get drivers behind the wheels of pricey alternative-powered vehicles. Plug-ins such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf qualify for federal tax credits of up to $7,500, but even that has failed to generate as much interest as the automakers have hoped. Leaf sales have shrunk at a time they were supposed to be doubling, and even though Volt sales have risen thus far in 2012, neither vehicle will come close to reaching sales targets for the year.

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To boost sales, both automakers have been offering cheap lease deals, which simultaneously lower the cost to the consumer and also ease concerns about being stuck with a plug-in for the long haul. Chevy, reported CNN Money, is leasing Volts for $269 a month after a down payment of around $2,800. Normally, leasing such a vehicle would run $450 per month.

Leaf leases are even cheaper: AutoEvolution notes that in California, leasing a Leaf costs as little as $139 per month for 24 months, with roughly $3,000 down.

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Granted, even with the cheap lease prices—or the bonus of $3,000 in free fuel—the numbers, not to mention the convenience factor, may not add up in favor of an alternative-fuel vehicle. Studies show that, considering energy costs and higher initial prices, owners of plug-in vehicles such as the Honda Fit EV—which is only available via lease—will probably never break even and be able to justify the purchase. Not in the strictly financial sense, anyway.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.